When Clodagh King completed her Leaving Certificate almost 10 years ago, she wasn’t 100% sure what she wanted to do at third level, but she most definitely didn’t think she’d end up doing a PhD research project on the accumulation of microplastics in soils and terrestrial ecosystems. For Clodagh her educational journey has been full of twists and turns as she tried to figure out what she wanted to study, but once she discovered environmental science she instantly fell in love.
Once Clodagh started her BSc (Hons) in Environmental Bioscience in Dundalk Institute of Technology (DkIT) in 2015, she knew she was exactly where she should be, she’d found her passion. Clodagh’s newfound enthusiasm for nature and the world she lived in inspired her to address the ongoing problems relating to environmental and climatic degradation.
After four fantastic years at DkIT which saw Clodagh graduating with a first-class honour and been awarded several academic honours including the Presidents Prize for academic excellence, she was encouraged to start her funded PhD research project. The support, belief, and encouragement she received from her lecturers on her PhD ambition were pivotal to her starting her research in 2019.
Clodagh’s PhD is focused on microplastics, and her research project is titled Agcumulate: a study on the accumulation of microplastics in soils and terrestrial ecosystems. The project is currently being conducted within the Centre for Freshwater and Environmental Studies (CFES) in DkIT. Clodagh Said: “Our Preliminary results show there are microplastics accumulating in Irish agricultural soils and terrestrial ecosystems, these initial findings would support some recent studies published on the accumulation of microplastics in agricultural environments globally”.
Since the 1990s, plastics have created huge opportunities in modern agriculture. Farmers heavily depend on these materials for mulching crops to provide higher yields, wrapping and preserving silage, storing feed and fertiliser, greenhouses, polytunnels and piping. Plastic products are stitched into almost every agricultural activity and for many farmers there are no alternative materials available to do the job. Plastics in agriculture has become so predominant in recent years that there is now a name for it: plasticulture. Consequently, the agricultural sector is recognised as capable of leaking significant amounts of plastics into the environment, and farmlands very often surround waterways which can lead to plastic waste produced on farms contributing to plastic pollution in freshwater and marine environments.
Clodagh began her research by putting a call out in the Farmers Journal seeking farmers to take part in a farm plastics management project. Clodagh King said: “Farmers are uniquely placed and important contributors for this study as they have hands on experience with plastics and can give a clear picture of the factors surrounding their use in Irish farming.” Clodagh further explained “The aim of this part of the research is to understand the main uses of plastics in agriculture and how Irish farmers manage it. We want to know which plastic disposal methods are used, how easy it is to dispose of them, and what are the barriers preventing the recycling of farm plastics in Ireland”.
Clodagh continued: “We hope that the answers farmers provide can build a greater understanding of real-world scenarios. We want to gain an insight into the opinions of farmers in relation to farm plastics, and gain understanding of the challenges surrounding the storage and management costs associated with their use.” The survey collected 430 responses which are currently being analysed with a written report to follow.
Clodagh progressed with her research by investigating and sampling various agricultural soils in fields across the north-east, midlands and south-east of the country. The main aim is to determine if different field conditions and farming regimes influence the number and the types of microplastics harbouring in soils and to find out where they are coming from. This followed with a project analysing wastewater and sediments found at an integrated constructed wetland water treating system in Glaslough Co Monaghan, with the focus looking at the abundance and removal efficiency of microplastics in these systems.
Clodagh is concluding her research by conducting a controlled pot trial in a polytunnel. This pot trial will consist of growing perennial ryegrass and white clover in soils containing different levels of microplastics to analyse the potential effects they are having on plant growth and soil health proxies.
Clodagh King Stated: ‘I’m confident that my final PhD research project findings will be beneficial to both the current Irish and Global understandings and add to the growing body of research on the impact of microplastics on our environment. This research will help serve as a base to support developing new solutions that can improve existing environmental degradation’