Microplastics

The risk posed by plastics to the marine environment and the human population depends on both the level of exposure to these contaminants and the harm they cause at these exposure levels. Our group carries out cutting-edge research to assess the distribution and transport of plastics to and within the ocean to better understand plastic fate and ecosystem exposure. This is an essential component if we are to understand the effects of plastic contamination on ecosystem health and how this is likely to change in the future.

This research includes:

  • Assessing inputs of plastics to the oceans from land via rivers and estuaries
  • Downward flow of plastic particles into the deep sea
  • Quantifying the transport of plastics, as well as their accumulation in the deep seafloor
  • Identification and classification of plastic litter in biodiversity hotspots
  • The interactions and ingestion of plastics by marine life

By measuring the distribution and interactions of plastics from the ocean’s surface through to deep-sea sediment, and how this changes over time, we aim to better understand the impacts of plastics in marine systems. Such information can be used to assess and predict trends in plastic distribution and the likely environmental implications, informing future regulations surrounding waste management, manufacturing processes and environmental monitoring.

Methods

  • Sampling Methods

    Our sampling methods are diverse and may include manually taking plastic samples onshore, from small coastal vessels, large ocean-going research ships, and remote autonomous equipment deployed in the ocean interior. Research expeditions give us the unparalleled capability to collect samples from otherwise inaccessible places in the open ocean.

    1. Stand-alone pumps (SAPs) instantaneously capture in situplastic particles by filtering large volumes (>1000 litres) of seawater through a fine mesh, producing depth profiles of plastics through the water column.
    2. Sediment traps are like rain gauges collecting marine particles including plastics that sink from the ocean surface to depth. These devices, moored in the abyss (3000 metres) for approximately one year, continuously collect sinking particles. They allow us to measure directly temporal changes (days to years) in magnitude and characteristics of plastics that sink to the deep ocean.
    3. Sediment cores are cylindrical tubes pushed into the seafloor to extract sediment, preserving its layered structure.
    1. By examining the different layers, we can gauge the accumulation of plastics in the ocean floor, understand the processes that resulted in their accumulation, and work out the efficiency of their burial. We prefer sampling tools that preserve the seawater-seabed interface, as they allow us to collect bottom-dwelling organisms to assess any interactions with plastics.
    2. Video footage provides data on the abundance and spatial variation in large plastic litter at the seafloor.
    3. Surface trawls use fine nets to collect small surface organisms, such as zooplankton, for the analysis of ingested plastics.

    Analytical Methods

    Plastics are made of different polymer types and we use advanced tools to detect, identify and characterise them in terms of their composition, size and shape. Our ‘microplastics analyser’ is a state-of-the-art Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) Imaging system which couples the capabilities of a traditional microscope with that of infrared spectrometer. In essence, it produces both a visible and a chemical image of the particles, from which their individual plastic types can be distinguished, and their dimensions measured. Our FTIR can detect and identify plastic particles as small as three micrometres in diameter.

Watch videos of our microplastics research

People

  • Professor Richard Lampitt

    Team leader. Biogeochemist with particular expertise in transport and processing of particulate material.
  • Dr Mike Clare

    Process-based sedimentologist focused on quantifying microplastic transport processes and pathways from source to sink using novel monitoring techniques and analysis of seafloor deposits.
  • Dr Jen Durden

    Research topics: spatial and temporal variation in deep-sea communities, abyssal invertebrates, metabolic theory of ecology, carbon flow in food webs, environmental policy related to deep-sea mining and plastic in the ocean, underwater photography
  • Dr Claire Evans

    Microbiologist with interest in the ways in which microplastic contamination may affect the microbiota of seas and the ocean.
  • Alice Horton

    Anthropogenic Contaminants Scientist with an expertise in aquatic microplastic pollution which includes sampling, analysis and ecotoxicological testing.
  • Dr Veerle Huvenne

    Marine geoscientist with more than ten years of experience in the study of complex deep-sea environments such as cold-water coral reefs, submarine canyons, hydrothermal vents or sandy contourites.
  • Dr Dan Mayor

    Biological oceanographer with expertise in plankton ecology and the factors with affect ecosystem structure and function.
  • Dr Katsia Pabortsava

    Post-Doctoral research scientist with major expertise in the collection and analysis of microplastics.