Human Practices


Quorum Sensing system for Microplastics Detection

We believe that a successful beach cleanup would create long-lasting impact not only on local beaches cleanup but also have an education purpose. To promote higher level of student engagement and commitment to act on plastic pollution problems and empower students to make changes by using science and technology, we took citizen science approach to engage students contribute to data collection to advance scientific research. We organized a beach cleanup activity not only to pick up plastic items in the beach, but also teach students how to collect invisible microplastics and count the numbers for contributing to global database of the Big Microplastic Survey. Besides, we have partnership with Environmental Protection Department (EPD) in “Bye Bye microbeads charter” scheme to educate students about the impact of microbeads, a type of microplastics commonly found in personal care and cosmetic products, in marine environment. We invite them to participate in an online challenge which consists of 5 questions and the answers can be found in EPD related webpage. There were 117 students participate in the event. With our effort to promote microplastics pollution by organizing beach cleanup and sharing sessions and with the active participation of students in the“Bye Bye microbeads charter” scheme, our team was awarded “Platinum Class” Award and “Excellence Award” from EPD. We strive to explore different innovative ways to engage students to join force on environmental protection and collecting data for sustainable development. The details of the events are as follow:

Beach cleanup

In June, we hosted a beach cleanup activity in Wu Kai Sha while more than 70 students participated and collected bunches of microplastics following the Big Microplastic Survey guideline. Afterwards, our team has counted and recorded the microplastics according to whether they are primary or secondary plastic, their size and colour. We uploaded the data to the Big Microplastic Survey (, which is a platform collecting microplastic distribution data in order to analyze the seriousness of microplastic pollution.

The Big Microplastic Survey is working on microplastic research. Through contributing our local data to this platform, they are able to identify and find the source of microplastic. Moreover, the database can also be used as an open resource for other people for formulating policy and conducting further research. Furthermore, the data will be uploaded and shown in the global map in this survey, we can see that the Hong Kong Wu Kai Sha beach is now showing the information we uploaded and it can be further used by the public for other uses. Furthermore, when the platform becomes more well developed, the organization is able to analyze the movement of microplastic and trace their route.
Our survey found that 69% of students rarely or never participate in beach clean-up activity and only 6% of students always or often did so. With active participation of students and experience gained in this activity, we will continue to organize beach clean-up activity regularly to invite our school students and other school students to participate in order to arouse their awareness in microplastic pollution and inspire them to take action to protect the environment through the beach cleanup, microplastics collection and contribute data to global database for research. Besides, we will continue to collaborate with Environmental Protection Department in the beach cleanup activity.

“Bye Bye microbead charter” scheme
in partnership with Environmental Protection Department (EPD)

After interviewing the Environmental Protection Department, our team was so fortunate to be invited to have partnership with EPD and to participate in the 'Bye Bye Microbead' campaign. This activity is an online quiz asking about the basic information of microplastic, for example their size and where they come from. Therefore, we encouraged our schoolmates to participate in this meaningful event and more than 100 students joined at last. We are so honored to be award the “Bye Bye Microbeads Charter”, Environmental Protection Department – Platinum Class Award and Excellence Award. Through participating in this activity, we truly believe participants are able to learn more about microplastic and be aware of this severe pollution problem.

Integrated Human Practices

During our iGEM journey, we reached out to difffent stakeholders to collect opinion and suggestions on our project. Below shows the contents of the meetups and how we implement their suggestion and lead to the positive outcomes of our project. We also conducted survey in which the findings provided insights for our outreach activities planning.


Interview with Professor Lee from City University of Hong Kong

Research Team

In the interview with Professor Lee, he provided valuable advice on our biosensor design. He suggested us to apply different ratios of sensing module to reporting module, study the effect of different vector copy numbers on the EGFP production rate, then choose the best one as the vector.

Professor Lee also gave us the other perspective, bacteria carrying one plasmid is better than 2 plasmids, since 2 plasmids is difficult for bacteria to pick up at the same time during transformation. He suggested the possibility of integrating two modules in a plasmid in addition to the strategy of co-transform two individual plasmids into E. coli host cells. He reminded us that T7 promoter acts as a phishing bait and the amount of AHL production is unknown, so T7 promoter and LasR should not be limiting. If there are too much LasR, the cells grow bad and cannot deal with them (bottle neck). If all LasR protein are used up, rate of reporting module is already the highest. If the increase of AHL results in no increase of fluorescence, it means AHL will no longer be the limiting factor. Thus there was a need to balance the production rate of LasR protein and the rate of AHL binding with LasR sensing module.


We implemented two Prof. Lee’s suggestion in construct design of our project which led to the successful engineering of a sensitive biosensor PSB1C3-LasR-pLasRL-EGFP. First, we construct a biosensor with different ratios of sensing module and reporting module. In this regards, we transformed three different ratios of the LasR sensing module and the EGFP reporting module in pET21b-LasR-pUC57-pLasRL-EGFP construct including 1:1, 2:1 and 3:1. We found that construct transformed with 3:1 ratio showed higher EGFP expression than 1:1 and 2:1. Besides, we engineered a new biosensor with both LasR sensing module and pLasR1-EGFP reporting module integrate in 1 plasmid and this biosensor showed the highest EGFP expression and become the most successful biosensor in our project.

Human Practice Team

In the interview with Professor Lee, we asked the professor for easy, interesting and interactive ways to communicate and motivate others to be interested and contribute to dealing with microplastics and other microbes in the environment. He shared that he was interested in finding the truth of science and he believed that microbiology deserves effort and time put in to heal the world and contribute to it.

We also told the professor how numerous people, especially teenagers, lack knowledge and awareness of the microplastics pollution, as seen by the fact that our questions in a past survey on the impact of microplastics to aquatic life forms have been answered correctly by merely 13.5% of local high school students. He explained that the general belief of the public is that the problem of plastic garbage has been erased after not seeing actual plastic products, hence not being aware that a single simple action, such as throwing away a plastic bottle, will actually contribute to plastic pollution. He further stated that few people think of the consequences of the vicious plastic cycle before disposing of their trash. He also told us that although people know that plastic pollution does harm them, they wouldn’t care as there is less evidence and there are still no significant cases of harmed human health. In comparison to humans, only marine life is significantly corrupted by plastic pollution.


We implement Prof. Lee suggestion in sharing session, survey design and fashion design. In the sharing session and survey design, we add the content of how plastics enter the foodchain and affect our health to show that it would not end up after disposal. It just the beginning of another cycle. We introduce how microplastic related to our daily life such as it can be found in some personal care products and cosmetic products. We put the microplastics that we collected in the beach on the clothes that participated in fashion show competition to make the microplastic visualize and deliver the message of the seriousness of the microplastic pollution.

Interview with Dr Stephanie Wright from Imperial College London

Human Practice Team

In the interview with Dr Wright, we asked for the reason for lack of awareness of microplastic pollution. Dr Wright thought that the public lacks awareness because microplastics can’t be seen, feel a certain disconnection to daily life, no strong evidence support, unclear message, big gap of awareness and lack of education

First reason for low awareness of the public is that people are disconnected to the fact that microplastics are everywhere in our life. Microplastics are not only in the marine, they are also in the air and in the drinking water. People cannot relate themselves to microplastic pollution.

Secondly, as the micro plastic essay is still in the process of building an evidence data bank, there are not many strong and clear messages that people are facing serious microplastic pollution.

Dr Wright suggested us to use different ways of advertising to different ranges of audiences

Firstly, we could use TV which can have more broad and diverse audiences. Secondly, we could use social media like twitter which is quite hard to stand out and may be easily diluted. Thirdly, we could use a science fair / festival which can attract thousands of young people, especially high school students. Fourthly, we could use face to face (physical) promotion which can target audiences. Lastly we could use live presentations to ask audience questions and show live answers.

Dr Wright reminded us to make something cool, be interactive (eg. Video clips, interviews, sounds), not to underestimate young people, treat the audience as young adults instead of teenagers, connect the knowledge into daily life ( microplastic in phone case), use analogy, send frame message to let them realize that they have already engaging this problem, add media in the ppt ( YouTube videos, short clips, interview) use live pole, mix up the ppt format to ensure not to be so bored and assume the audience know nothing about microplastic.


We included facts about microplastic pollution in our presentation to let students visualize the problem and see the relevance of microplastic pollution in our daily life. We use word cloud as live poll, kahoot as cool game, animations and videos in iGEM sharing sesson to make it interactive and funny. Besides, we organized iGEM project exhibition for parents and school students to promote our iGEM project works and plastic pollution problem. We used live presentations and science exhibition in these educational events. We received many positive feedbacks from both students and parents.

Interview with Miss Leanne Tam from Greenpeace

Human Practice Team

In the interview with Miss Leanne Tam, we understand that lack of awareness of teenagers is caused by the small amount of people who know about microplastic pollution.
We asked about the effects of surveys, Leanne suggested us to reach the target audience and quantify related data, instead of asking everything.
We also asked for the improvement of collaborations, Leanne mentioned that information sharing and accepting others' ideas are most essential as every organization has different strengths and others opinions are all insights.
From the previous survey, we noticed that the knowledge question based on microplastic got a low mean score. We think that communicating with the Government can engage youngsters and draw their attention to pollution problems. Leanne told us there must have space, time, platform for government, other organizations to communicate equally, and let the Government know international legislation is much-needed, demonstrating governmental policies have huge impact, long-term great effectiveness and motivation on the public. Leanne also mentioned that the government needs to provide a suitable platform for teens and this would be a long term action, we should use action to carry out changes.
Other than raising public awareness by social media, Leanne suggested us to use different platforms, namely press conferences, newspapers, posters and banners. She hopes us to reach more people and make marketing packaging like Reels, causing the ripple effect is challenging, which is low cost with high efficiency. She also mentioned that social media gives us insight of reaction of the public, such as accounts reached/reacted, comments, retweets, shares etc, which show efficiency of communication between organizations and citizens. Moreover, she suggested us to give a shot to all many different methods, which shows creativity in social media (strengths of youths), general communication with public by offline advertising with posters/banners, wills, seminars, press conferences or media interviews. This method is low cost, but have more communication to attract public attention.


We use word cloud as live poll, kahoot as cool game, animations and videos in iGEM sharing sesson to make it interactive and funny. Besides, we organized iGEM project exhibition for parents and school students to promote our iGEM project works and plastic pollution problem. We used live presentations and science exhibition in these educational events. We received many positive feedbacks from both students and parents.

Interview with Professor King Chow from The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

In our interview with Prof. Chow, we listened his suggestions to our project. He raised many questions for us to consider which enable us to search for more information and plan more detail in our experimental design. For example, he reminded us to check the relevant concentration range of AHL molecules in environmental water samples and known plastic level for AHL signal to be produced and lead to EGFP production, how to make sure the microplastic collection method is consistent, how to perform large scale microplastic collection with AI vehicle etc. We also learn that it may take a long time for all the microplastics in the sand sample to float to the surface of water and be collected by the sieve. Therefore, we increased the waiting time before collecting the microplastics.

Interview with Dr. Wai Thoe and Ms. Kate Ng from Environmental Protection Department (EPD)

In our interview with Dr. Wai Thoe and Ms. Kate Ng from the Environmental Protection Department of the Hong Kong government, we remarked on their success of the promotion of Bye Bye Microbeads Scheme, a scheme engaging different industries on reducing or eliminating the use of microbeads which was awarded Public Relations & Communications Association - Asia Pacific (PRCA APAC) in April 2023. The EPD suggested that communication with the production and retail stakeholders to improve or solve the problem of microbeads is effective, as stakeholders have associations for networks to the community and can promote the spreading of information. Through associations, the information can reach the public. They stated that recruiting more participating organizations and using interesting promotional methods are keys to a successful promotion to the sectors, thus engaging them in the scheme.

We also realized that although the EPD successfully promoted the scheme of phasing out microbeads in personal care and cosmetic products, microbeads are considered as the most traditional and convenient to produce those products, thus asking the EPD how they changed the mindset of the industries when promoting the scheme. They explained that there are better substitutes that have more functions, are cheaper and are more environmentally-friendly than microbeads, such as coffee powder, carbon powder, Kaolin etc.

We also asked the EPD on how communication can be done efficiently so that the general public would understand and support our cause. They suggested making videos, as they would make the public understand and memorize knowledge easily, gaining public resonance. They have intentionally designed the webpage in a beautiful and youthful way with the usage of the color pink to appeal to young females, who are the general users of cosmetic products. They would also spot trends and follow them to appeal to teenage audiences.

To successfully present our science knowledge gained from research to the public in an easy-to-digest way, the EPD suggested making a mascot to gain public resonance. They also reminded us not to use commands when sharing our knowledge.

Implementation and Partnership

We formed partnership with EDP after several discussion through email, phones and meetings. Dr. Thoe from EPD suggested that legislation and reduce single use plastics only indirectly address microplastic pollution. It was better to cut at the source. Thus education to the public was important. With our aims and works to promote plastic pollution to other secondary schools, his department would form partnership with us to collaborate in beach cleanup activity and promotion of microplstic pollution. It was expected that the partnership would help to share the implementation scheme such as “Bye Bye Microbeads Chater” scheme from EPD to the public especially immerse the messages in students community through our reachout activities. That will be beneficial for EPD policy moving forward and development. He mentioned EDP have the information about the abundance of plastics in different beaches and can provide useful information for us about the suitable places for beach clean up activities. Also, he would provide updated information about microplastics for us to diseminate in the sharing session. In the sharing session in our school and International College Hong Kong in May and June, we introduced microplastic pollution and “Bye Bye Microbeads Chater” scheme to students. We also promote “Bye Bye Microbeads Chater” scheme online challenge to ourschool students. We received active participation from our students with 117 school students participate in the online challenge. Our outreach activities including the promotion of microplastic pollution and “Bye Bye Microbeads Charter” scheme in the sharing sessions, beach cleanup activities and successful promotion of “Bye Bye Microbeads Chater” scheme online challenge prompt us to receive “Platinum Class” Award and “Excellence Award” from EPD on 8 Aug 2023.

From the interview, we learned that EPD use sewage removal method to treat the microplastics. Thus on 28 Aug, we visited Stonecutter Island Sewage Treatment Works which enabled us to better comprehend Hong Kong’s water treatment procedure and consider how our biosensor fit the purpose. We realized that the sewage pipes are connected underground and transport the sewage to the sewage treatment plant. We explored the plant and learned the process of sewage treatment. From the treatment process, we understand that there are microplastic in the sewage and they are usually trapped as sediments, the water will be further treated with chlorine to kill the bacteria and apply dechlorination, lastly discharged into the sea. Besides, we learned that the research team in EPD were studying the use of AI to identify the microplastics for shoreline cleaning in which the work align with our technology team. As we need more photographs with microplastics to train the AI, we asked EPD to share us some photos they have in their research lab for our reference in the AI model development. EPD sent us a few photos and a video showing how their research lab collect and quantify microplastics. It provided insight for our design of AI microplastic collection vehicle. The EPD has been manually counting the numbers of microplastics in microscopic images. This was done to demonstrate the effectiveness of the water treatment system in removing microplastics from sewage. This initiative has inspired us to explore the application of instance segmentation AI(Mask R-CNN), which can mask and count the numbers of microplastics more efficiently and accurately.

On 28/8, we went to Stonecutter Island Sewage Treatment work, we realized that the sewage pipes are connected underground and transport the sewage to the sewage treatment plant. We explored the plant and learned the process of sewage treatment. From the treatment process, we understand that there are microplastic in the sewage and they are usually trapped as sediments, the water will be further treated with chlorine to kill the bacteria and apply dechlorination, lastly discharged into the sea.


Survey Aim

Our aim: To study public views on plastic pollution, the findings could be used as a first-hand resource that reflect the current challenges related to microplastic pollution. The obtained data is also important for the stakeholders (the Government, NGOs, citizens etc.) to formulate future strategies and plans in order to address the intensifying plastic pollution around the globe.

In March, we planned a survey for G7 to G11 school students that aims to test their understanding of different aspects of plastic pollution. Our survey consists of 43 questions and is divided into 5 parts: Knowledge, Pro-environmental behaviour, Plastic alternatives, Reason for not engaging and Personal experience.
The knowledge part of the survey tests the facts of microplastic and its effect on the environment and ecosystem. In the interview with Dr Wright, she suggested to involve a question of how microplastics get along the food chain.
The pro-environmental behavior part of the survey gives us an idea on how often students use products containing microplastic in their life, which help us further plan our education on their behavior.
The Plastic alternatives part of the survey suggests 3 materials which could replace plastic. Looking at their responses, we can discover which material would be the best and most convenient to replace plastic, then further reduce microplastic broken down from plastic products.
The reasons for not engaging part of the survey reveals the reasons for less people participating in activities and reducing the use of plastic. From the reasons we suggested and the students' responses, we can figure out the reasons behind and improve the activities or guidelines to increase participants.
The personal experience of the survey shows us their habits and behavior, then we can use the most suitable way to arrange activities for students in order to have more participants and maximize the education effect.
Some highlights of survey responses are as follow:


Use a word or a few words to describe what are the green signals shown in the figure.

Only 19.7% of students were able to give the correct answer - microplastics. Most students either thought that they were bacteria and other living organisms attached to the zooplankton, or fluorescent substance emitted by the zooplankton itself. It reflected that the harmfulness of microplastics to organisms was not being noticed by the students. They were seldom to associate that the organisms were “polluted” by microplastics.

Microplastics cause harm to marine organisms only.

49.3% of students knew that microplastic did not only cause harm to marine organisms. However, 18.6% of students thought that microplastic only caused harm to marine organisms and 32.1% were not sure. It reflected that students had equally low reliance between microplastic and human. They just thought microplastic would harm wildlife and marine life. More education on microplastic pollution and harness is essential.

What is the size of a piece of microplastic?

46.6% of students gave the correct answer, however, 41.7% of students mis-understood microplastic should be less than 1mm. It reflected that education on microplastic was not sufficient. They thought microplastic was very tiny but in fact, it could be visible.

Which of the following organisms are able to bring microplastic into the food chain?

  • I human
  • II fish
  • III algae
  • IV crabs

  • Only 25% of students got the correct answer. 58% of students got the wrong one as they thought humans could also bring microplastic into the food chain. Humans will bring microplastic in the environment but will not bring them into the food chain. Many students might mix up the concept of food chain and environment. Thus, more education is needed.

    Pro-environmental behaviour

    How often do you usually dispose of plastic products after a single use?

    Over 70% of students would dispose of plastic products after a single use. Only 5% of students would use it until it was broken. It reflected that the concept of Reuse was not solidified.

    How often do you participate in beach clean-up activities?

    69% of students rarely or never participate in beach clean-up activity. Only 6% of students always or often did so as they might think that such activity was important for the environment and deserved to be done.

    Plastic alternatives

    Biodegradable plastic bags are a good option as plastic alternatives.

    62.2% of students agreed or strongly agreed that biodegradable plastic bags are a good option as plastic alternatives. It showed that more biodegradable plastic products should be launched to the market to act as a replacement for plastic products.

    Bamboo utensils are a good option as plastic alternatives.

    Around 50% of students thought that bamboo utensils are a good option as plastic alternatives. However, 37.8% were neutral. It reflected that some students might believe that bamboo utensils would still cause damage to the environment or cause wastage as they were hard to be reused.

    Paper straws are a good option as plastic alternatives.

    Only 47.3% of students agreed that paper straws are good alternatives to plastic straws. 31.2% of students were neutral while 21.6% disagreed to replace them with paper straws. It reflected that paper straws were not so receptive when compared with other alternatives.

    Personal experience

    Have you ever seen microplastic in the beaches of Hong Kong?

    66.7% of students mentioned that they had not seen microplastic in the beaches as they might think that microplastic was too tiny to be seen. Since many of them cannot see the microplastic on the beach, they didn’t realize the problem of microplastic pollution. This shows the need of raising their awareness on microplastic,

    For those who had seen microplastic, we asked a follow-up question.
    If yes, please describe what type of microplastic you have seen.

    44.1% of students mis-understood the definition of microplastic, they thought plastic bottles or bags were microplastic. Only 19.3% of students could mention those plastic beads or foam beads. It reflected that it was easy to mix up plastic and microplastic.

    Do you agree that more microplastics appearing on beaches or in the sea will decrease the number of tourists?

    Around 60% of students agreed that microplastic appearing on beaches would decrease the number of tourists. It reflected that most students understood the consequences of microplastic pollution on beaches and its impact on human activities.

    From where are you exposed to environmental issues relating to microplastics? (multi-select)

    80.5% of students were exposed to environmental issues relating to microplastics through school, then by television and social media. Therefore, we can promote environmental issues through organizing more school sharing sessions and creating social media accounts to attract students’ attention.


    Through the survey, we have obtained immensely useful information and data about the students who took it, including their pro-environmental behavior, their reasons for not engaging in pro-environmental activities, whether they are open to different plastic alternatives, and their deep knowledge about microplastics. The information help us in our project. For example, in our sharing session and promotion video, we introduce how plastics enter the food chain and bioaccumulate in each trophic level; we clarify the common misconceptions that we found in the survey including the size of microplastics, microplastics not only affect marine animals etc. We notice that over 80.5% of students were exposed to environmental issues relating to microplastics through school; 62.2% of students agreed or strongly agreed that biodegradable plastic bags are a good option as plastic alternatives and 69% of students rarely or never participate in beach clean-up activity. Thus we see the need to organize activities to promote how science and technology address plastic pollution and beach cleanup to arouse student awareness about the issue and encourage them to take action.


    We fully integrate all stakeholders involved into our project to end up with a functional biosensor and make impacts to the community that will truly be a great benefit to as many people as possible.
    Through the interview with different stakeholders, we implemented professor’s suggestions on biosensor design leading us to engineer a sensitive biosensor for potential application in microplastic detection. The biosensor will be able to quantify the level of microplastics in environmental samples. The information allow Government and NGO to clean up the more severely polluted waters and discussion with the government to set up warning systems for marine animals living in the severely polluted areas. In this way we can reduce the harm that microplastics bring to our health, the ecosystem and the environment. In order to achieve this, it will be considered that cooperating with Biotechnology companies can help in improving our biosensor, namely improving the sensitivity and shortening the test time, or even commercialize it, which could further replace the EGFP gene for other reporting genes, making it into kits to increase convenience.
    Besides, we form partnership with EPD to help deliver the EPD scheme about microplastics to other school students and the public in our outreach activities and coorganize beach cleanup activities. Our works in the promotion of plastic pollution and beach clean up activities allow us to receive “Platinum Class” Award and “Excellence Award” from EPD.
    From the interview, we learned that the EPD has been manually counting the numbers of microplastics in microscopic images. This initiative has inspired us to explore the application of instance segmentation AI(Mask R-CNN), which can mask and count the numbers of microplastics more efficiently and accurately. We are designing that for collecting microplastic from the sand and can be used widely in beach clean up to make the job easier and more efficient. In this way, we can create convenience to humans, improve the problem of microplastic pollution and make the world a better place.
    From the whole school survey, we gather useful information and misconceptions and put them in the sharing session and exhibition to make the information updated and to the point. We also implemented the suggerstions to make the sharing session more interactive and funny. We have received many positive feedbacks from students. For example, Over 85% of students (86.9%) agreed and strongly agreed that they enjoyed the contents of the exhibition. More results will be discussed in the sharing session part of Education page.