An interview with prof. Andreas Fath
Prof. Dr Andreas Fath from the Furtwangen University is somewhat special, if you picture an average image of a professor. What makes him special is the fact that he decided to combine his academic research world with his sports passion (a former athlete used to competitively swim in his youth). As he deals mostly with microplastic pollution, he raises awareness about this growing problem by swimming the rivers and educating people about the dangers of microplastic pollution along the way.
We have talked with him after his Danube swimm, a third adventure of similar kind, after the river Rhein and the river Tenessee. His passion and determination are remarkable and we are delighted to be able to have a conversation with him and to be able to share it here.
For years now, there’s been more plastic particulates floating in the Danube than fish larvae - and the number is growing on a daily basis. The Danube, in turn, washes over 4 tons of plastic into the Black Sea - every single day. It is time to act and we all should do our part. Prof. Fath certainly does his.
PlanetCare: Prof. Fath, swimming for 2.700 km is not 'a picnic'… How did you motivate yourself when it got hard?
Prof. Fath: Well, I am a swimmer, I used to train swimming, so swimming is rather close to my heart and it is something I am very glad about - to be able to incorporate my sports passion with my work and combine it with a good cause on top of it.
The river always has a beginning and an end. So it never occurred to me that quitting before I reached the end was an option. Yes, it got hard in the process, I was tired and it was difficult at times. But I had a goal and it was clear to me from the beginning – the river has an end and this is what I am determined to reach – Danube's end in the Black Sea.
No effort is too huge to clean the waters. So if I can swim 2.700 km, then the washing machine producers can implement a filter in the washing machine, right:) It should be worth for us, for everybody, because at the end – we all pay the price.
PlanetCare: What is the most rewarding part of your swim?
Prof. Fath: The celebrations when my team and I paused off shore and we met the people, the NGOs, all the welcome meetings they organised,… it was amazing. It made it really worth to swim those 2.700 km – if only for that. It was incredible, in Romania, for example, I remember – there were singers waiting for us in their traditional national costumes, it was a beautiful concert – I didn't understand a word, but it was truly touching. It touched my heart several times when I saw all those people waiting for us for hours, to welcome us, and to present to us what they do, their work, their efforts to save the Danube. We are still in contact with these people and hopefully we will continue the work with them.
The river always has a beginning and an end. So it never occurred to me that quitting before I reached the end was an option.Prof. Andreas Fath
PlanetCare: When you tell people about the purpose of your swim – would you say they are surprised? Or has the majority already heard of the microplastic pollution in some way or the other?
Prof. Fath: We organised workshop with various NGOs, we worked with kindergartens, young people, students, we organised cleanups at the river shore. We made people aware of the problem, educated them about microplastics, about the sources, why it is dangerous, how macroplastic is transformed to microplastic if we don't take care of our litter – very important issues, to realise what happens as a result of our (in)action. If we change nothing in our behaviour, how the boomerang will come back at us. Then our health is in danger and marine life is in danger, our food is in danger,… But if we know about what happens later – we can act.
These workshops were great, they were interactive, people learned by doing, they really understood the gravity of the problem. We didn't only educate children, but adults, too. Our media response was also great help for all the local NGOs, more people realised these NGOs not only exist, but they do a great and an important job.
PlanetCare: 35% of microplastic in the oceans come from synthetic textiles, i.e. our laundry. Do you have any data about the percentage in the rivers?
Prof. Fath: No, not yet. But we will get these data when we look at our filters. We have different techniques to analyse these filters. By filtering thousands of litters of water in different depths of the Danube, we have a lot of by-catch, not only the fibres. There is sand, algea, insects,… We first have to get rid of all this by-catch in order to detect only the microplastic particles.
We combine two different spectroscopy methods, one at our University and one in the US at the University of Tennessee. It will take until the end of this year to have all the results ready… Now we do various quick tests of water samples (ammonia, phosphates, oxygen levels,…) which give us an indication into where waste water treatment plans are efficient, we see great differences from country to country and between cities. There is a big gap in Serbia, for example. And oxygen level is an indirect indicator of water pollution. Oxygen concentration is at its maximum at the beginning of Danube and it is growing down with the flow, with hot spots in the cities – Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade,… Also the concentration of microfibres is expected to be highest around cities, due to intense population and more washing.
Microfibres are among top contributors in the whole microplastic pollution and I am surprised the washing machine producers aren't aware of that. Or they just prefer waiting for a legislation to require the filters or consumers to put more pressure instead of acting before?
Do you know Leonie Prilwitz, so young and has already invented a filter to attach to the washing machine, at the age of 15! Amazing.
PlanetCare: No, we don't, but will look her up, thank you.
According to your experience – what could be done to most efficiently slow down this invisible pollution? Addressing the fashion industry, the washing machine producers, the water treatment plans producers, the end users? Legislation? All of the above?
Prof. Fath: Oh, it's an interesting question – what is the impact of the fashion industry on the quality of our water… But always – all of the above, of course.
A legal requirement would help, but I would hope that also the other direction will work – that is the basic point of our programes, to make people aware thare is a problem and how we can act against it. If enough people, a critical mass, knows about the problem, they will demand solutions. They will put pressure to the washing machine producers, they will buy less, wash differently….I just hope that we are not too slow. Unfortunately industrial and fashion lobbies are strong and make the governments very slow in taking 'unpopular' decisions.
In any case – it is on us to make people aware of this problem and use every channel we can get to to increase the pressure – on the industry and on the governments, as well.
PlanetCare: Since you have first encountered the issue of microplastic pollution – what has changed till today? Do you see any changes, also in willingness to introduce some legislative requirements/changes?
Prof. Fath: After the Rhein swim I realised how problematic microplastics have become. That is why I decided to swim the Danube, as well – not for the pleasure of it. There really is no fun in this, it is hard work, but I realise that with this combination 'sport meets science and education' we reach more people than by just doing academic research and writing scientific papers. Then it is pleasure, of course, to realise that your programme was successful and you have achieved something. But it is hard work.
So I realised after 2014, the number of writings about microplastics has increased and I am glad to say that I was among the first to start this. I was the first to analyse a river from its source to mouth and then afterwards the paper publication rate started to raise. Here we have started to work on banning single use plastic and the microbeads ban in the US followed after swimming the Tennessee, taking microplastics out from cosmetic products. The motivation to swim the Danube river was to achieve maximum impact – it is the most international river… 10 different countries, 10 different cultures, their waste water treatment is different, and rivers are a mirror of a society. Also the case with microfibres – I would imagine there are different habits with washing, different frequency, different textile materials that are predominantly used, some have more new clothes, that shed more,... I am sure this will show to have an impact, too.