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UBC student researching microplastics in Galapagos penguins

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Researchers at the University of British Columbia are studying just how much plastic is ending up in the ocean — by examining penguin feces.

It isn't something everyone would be ready to roll up their sleeves for, but Karly McMullen says it's what she’s passionate about.

"We collected Galapagos penguin scat,” she said. "We're looking at how much microplastics the Galapagos penguin will eat."

McMullen is a student in the Oceans and Fisheries department and is working to determine how microplastics end up being ingested by marine life and eventually the food web.

Her passion for the environment led her all the way to the Galapagos Islands where she began studying samples of fish stomachs, seawater, zooplankton and penguin feces.

"In one fish, for example, that had 29 fibres, we were seeing blue, green, pink,” she said, adding that in the absence of microplastics the fish stomach would normally be filled with algae or brown-looking matter.

The microplastics are about half the size of a human hair and McMullen is studying them at a UBC lab along with PhD candidate Mathew Kowal.

"As far as all types of scientific research goes, I think this is one that's really related to everyone,” said Kowal, who is a chemist.

He works to analyze exactly what kinds of microplastics are being found in the samples, and says one is much more common than others. 

"PET is something that you find in soda bottles, a lot of clothing, anything labeled 'polyester.' It's the most commonly produced plastic so it makes sense that it would be the commonly found one.

Their work is now being detailed in a research paper that will eventually be published.

"Plastic production is increasing every year, and I think we need to focus on reducing that increase,” said McMullen.

She hopes their work help people better understand the impact of microplastics on aquatic life, and encourage communities to rethink their plastic use. 

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