PhD candidate, Ms Refilwe Mofokeng, of the School of Life Sciences is spending two months at the University of Birmingham working with UKZN alumnus, Dr Holly Nel on the science surrounding microplastic pollution thanks to a prestigious Fellowship from the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU).

Mofokeng, who recently met Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex while the royal was on a visit to the ACU, completed a Mining Engineering diploma at Richtech in Richards Bay in KwaZulu-Natal followed by a Bachelor of Science degree and an honours degree at the University of Zululand (UNIZULU).

She went on to do Master’s degrees at UNIZULU, Siena University in Italy, as well as Leiden and Delft universities in The Netherlands before joining UKZN as an intern before starting doctoral studies focusing on toxicity in microplastics and mapping the extent of the microplastics pandemic.

Mofokeng is examining the synergistic impact of microplastics with heavy metals and the extent of microplastics contamination in the Durban Harbour. She aims to determine whether microplastics play a role in exacerbating heavy metal contamination in marine organisms at the bottom of the food chain and to understand how that may affect heavy metal bioaccumulation and biomagnification up the food chain when it comes to humans.

The Fellowship, says Mofokeng, enables her to further establish her part in the global community working towards turning the tide against plastic, particularly in the marine environment. She hopes her time in Birmingham will introduce her to new, innovative and cost-effective techniques for analysing microplastics in the environment, particularly in the African context.

‘As the topic of microplastics has only recently gained popularity in the scientific environment worldwide, my aim is help communicate the effect of microplastics from an African perspective so that solutions can be adopted and easily implemented within the continent,’ she said.

With a background in estuarine ecotoxicology, Mofokeng is interested in the effect of pollutants in marine and estuarine environments, especially in understanding the role of microplastics in association with other known contaminants, particularly in highly polluted environments such as harbours.

With growing awareness surrounding the severity of microplastics pollution, Mofokeng, who also founded the Refilwe Matlotlo environmental non-profit organisation in 2016, believes improvements have begun to show. The work of her organisation includes regular beach and harbour clean-ups with a focus on sensitising the public to the environmental impacts of plastics, which, says Mofokeng, has resulted in a marked change in behaviour towards the environment. Additionally, she has seen increasing support from corporates and retailers, for example in stores agreeing to avoid use of plastic straws and balloons.

To support her environmental awareness programmes. She recently launched a reusable coffee mug which was a hit with staff on the Westville campus. Her organisation also instituted plastic and paper recycling systems for the School, co-ordinating efforts with cleaning staff, with a vision to expand to all UKZN campuses during this year.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Supplied by Refilwe Mofokeng