College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Postdoctoral Researcher Takes on the Scourge of Marine Litter

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Postdoctoral researcher in the School of Health Sciences, Dr Refilwe Mofokeng has made a name for herself in marine conservation through her research, advocacy and organising of beach clean-ups, and her efforts have not let up despite the limitations of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With a background in marine and estuarine ecotoxicology, Mofokeng is a scientist who is passionate about having a positive impact on the world.

A firm believer in the importance of conservation education to change attitudes and behaviour towards the environment, in 2016 Mofokeng founded the Refilwe Matlotlo non-profit organisation to communicate the importance of conserving marine life and encouraging tangible actions to achieve this.

‘I have worked extensively along the Indian Ocean Coastline from St Lucia to Amanzimtoti, and the one common thing I’ve noticed was the abundance of debris in marine systems,’ said Mofokeng.

‘I was one of the people who blamed the government for not doing enough to solve the marine pollution problem but I soon realised that by doing nothing, I, too, was part of the problem. I then decided to organise colleagues and students to be part of the clean-up and awareness programmes.’

Since its establishment, the Refilwe Matlotlo organisation has hosted more than 20 clean-ups. Applying her scientific background, Mofokeng has collected data at most of the events to track the changes in marine litter over the years.

Preliminary data has revealed that plastic accumulation in the Durban Harbour in 2018 pre-COVID-19 and in 2021 during COVID-19 has not significantly changed in quantity despite current COVID-19 era debris being more distributed, with questionnaires revealing that while many people are aware of plastic pollution in their environments, almost a third are unlikely to pick up litter. Her organisation also organised clean-ups in Hout Bay and Durban to compare marine debris between the two areas following 2020’s hard lockdown.

Mofokeng has presented the results of this work at conferences organised by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and the Global British Council in 2021.

Despite the pandemic, in 2021 Mofokeng hosted clean-ups at the Durban Harbour in honour of Earth Hour in March and World Oceans Day in June, supported by UKZN, the BAT Centre, the NTNU, and the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU).

Refilwe Matlotlo teamed up with the Earth Ambassadeurs non-profit organisation based in Jamaica to commemorate World Oceans Day, with each hosting a volunteer beach clean-up event in June and recording the days’ events for a documentary to be showcased at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland in November. Mofokeng has been selected by the ACU to join the ACU-British Council Commonwealth Futures Climate Research Cohort for a series of training workshops, a group project, virtual meetings, and travel to and participation in COP26.

Mofokeng’s research and advocacy has earned her recognition in both academic and philanthropic circles. While a postgraduate student at the University of Zululand, she received an Erasmus Mundus Award and a Nelson Mandela Scholarship that enabled her to study in Italy and The Netherlands.

During her PhD studies in Marine Biology at UKZN, the award of a Fellowship from the ACU led her to the University of Birmingham where she worked with international scholars on an analysis of the impact of microplastics on the environment, and had a run-in with royalty while on the job!

Mofokeng is now investigating the impact of urban rivers in marine systems with a particular focus on the Durban Harbour for her postdoctoral research.

Her organisation is planning more clean-ups in 2021 in the Durban Harbour and Hout Bay to understand the impact of COVID-19 and economic activity in both areas, and is administering a questionnaire to people in KwaZulu-Natal to help understand the relationship between people and plastic, with preliminary results indicating greater dependence on single-use plastics than before the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘We are shifting the fight from plastic alternatives to management, and are also surveying companies to understand their challenges with plastic pollution,’ said Mofokeng.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Refilwe Matlotlo organisation