By Orna Herr, Communications Officer at the British Science Association,


When we think about robot technology and how it could be used to improve our lives in the future, oceans full of robo-fish might not be the first thing that springs to mind. But think again!

Just in time for Plastic Free July, scientists have recently unveiled a new innovation of tiny robotic fish made of a material that absorbs microplastics in the water. They are just 13 millimetres long and can carry up to five kilograms, meaning if they were widely dispersed, they could go a long way to cleaning the seas of these manmade particles.

Why is this an important step (or swim) forward? Microplastics are so small, under five millimetres long, that they are easily consumed by fish and other aquatic animals, and when humans eat fish and seafood, we are inadvertently consuming them too. Microplastics have also been found in beer, honey, table salt and in 90% of bottled water.

This is undeniably a problem, but the scale is still unknown. Exactly how much plastic do we consume, and what impact is it having on our health?

At this year’s British Science Festival, taking place at De Monfort University, Leicester on 13-17 September, these questions will be explored at ‘The hidden life of microplastics’ a talk by Bhavani Esapathi which promises to be fascinating. With microplastics so widespread, this is an issue that truly affects us all. Esapthi, the founder of The Invisible Labs, will discuss the rise of chronic, autoimmune and respiratory conditions that seem to be caused by microplastics. What are the politics and wider implications of this issue?

Of course, human health is not the only thing the dissemination of microplastics poses a threat to. A study by German academics found that microplastic pollution in soil is several times higher than in the seas and oceans, and can cause great damage to ecosystems. For example, “the surfaces of tiny fragments of plastic may carry disease-causing organisms and act as a vector that transmits diseases in the environment.”

This issue is the inspiration behind another event at the British Science Festival, ‘Small particles, big problem’ on 15 September. This drop-in event at the Leicester Museum and Art Gallery allows you to try your hand at some research methods for discovering how microplastics harm eco-systems. The methods were devised by a team of researchers at the University of Birmingham and have eye-opening results.

For festival attendees with an interest in tackling the plastic waste crisis, ‘Plastics: villain or vanillin’ is another event not to be missed. Joanna Sadler from the University of Edinburgh explains how the synthetic molecule vanillin that often provides the vanilla flavour in treats like ice cream has a role to play in creating a cleaner environment.

The British Science Festival will host around 100 events, talks and experiences over five days covering a wide range of scientific topics alongside plastic pollution, from the psychology behind our clothing choices to the evolutionary story of fatherhood. All the events are free, but booking a slot is recommended! Go to the British Science Festival website for all the information you’ll need.