Current and Future Effects of Microplastics on Marine Shelf Ecosystems (MINIMISE)

Lead Research Organisation: UNIVERSITY OF EXETER
Department Name: Biosciences


Marine plastic debris has been recorded across all parts of the globe and its potential to cause harm to marine wildlife and the healthy functioning of the oceans is an area of huge current concern. Microscopic plastic debris, (microplastic <5 mm in size and with no lower size limit), is a particular concern since its small size allows it to be consumed by many marine organisms, including those at the base of marine food webs and/or intended for human consumption. Coastal oceans are particularly vulnerable; they are in close proximity to human activities that contribute towards pollution and at the same time they are highly productive habitats that support a high abundance of marine life. Protecting these vulnerable habitats from any risk from microplastics is a high priority, but is hindered by a lack of fundamental knowledge; of what methods to use to measure them in marine samples and wildlife, of how microplastics move and behave in the marine environment, how they get into marine animals and what the consequences are for individual animals and for the healthy function of marine ecosystems.

In this project we have brought together 4 Universities, the National Oceanography Centre and the Centre for the Environment, Fisheries and Agricultural Sciences (Cefas) to tackle these critical knowledge gaps, focusing on the UK Shelf seas. Our consortium includes scientists with a wealth of expertise in polymer science and the ecotoxicology of microplastics as pollutants, and who have pioneered the field. This unique expertise is strengthened by the addition of new, exciting approaches brought by excellent early career scientists with expertise in understanding the responses of marine ecosystems including at the microbial level and in using computational approaches to calculate environmental risk.

We have designed a programme of work that includes many cutting edge new advances in technology, including a new method for measuring microplastics called FLAIR (Fluorescence assisted infrared microscopy) that offer the potential for rapid screening of many samples at once, allowing us to make experimental plans unhindered by technological limitations. We will develop the use of highly sensitive bio-imaging techniques to visualise microplastics deep within living tissues (Hyperspectral imaging, Coherent anti-Stokes Raman spectroscopy) and Quantittive Whole Body Autoradiography (QWBA) for tracing how microplastics move between prey animals and their predators. We will determine how the presence of microplastics and examples of the ubiquitous priority pollutants that can sorb to them in seawater affect the biology of marine invertebrates and fish. We will also determine how microplastics and contaminants affect the functioning of marine shelf seas sediments and the organisms that live in them under different ocean chemistry conditions. This is important because these processes support many aspects of marine life.

Finally, we will bring all of this data together with the very extensive body of existing monitoring data available to the project through ongoing activities of all partners, to construct a geospatial risk map for the UK shelf seas, using the latest approaches in integrated risk assessment. This unique risk map will offer a predictive tool for working out where impacts from microplastics pollution are likely to occur and risks are greatest, enabling policy makers to make science-backed assertions, e.g. to protect vulnerable habitats, aquaculture, fish spawning areas, fishing activities and other relevant ecosystem services. It will also provide a means of tracking remedial actions and to investigate whether there are 'proxies' for the presence of microplastic pollution that are quicker and easier to measure than microplastics themselves.

Planned Impact

A key deliverable of this research programme will be to develop novel monitoring and risk assessment tools for managing this high priority pollutant. The knowledge and tools generated by this project will be of interest and beneficial to government members, regulators and policy makers charged with marine legislation and environmental protection, the general public who are interested in conservation of marine life, enjoying the benefits of marine recreational activity and eating seafood, and industry groups who manufacture and use plastic items and are concerned about their impact on the wider environment and related consumer concerns. It is also relevant to fisheries, aquaculture and others involved in food production, who need information on whether microplastic and associated contaminants in fish and seafood may pose a risk to consumer health.
In order to maximise our dissemination and interactions with these key stakeholders we have established a Project Advisory Group comprising: DEFRA (Water Quality Management Directorate (Marine Litter Team)); the Environment Agency; Marine Scotland; the Marine Conservation Society; the water industry - both UKWIR (UK Water Industries Research) and South West Water; the plastics industry - Plastics Europe and the British Plastics Federation; major food and clothing retailer Marks and Spencer; international drinks manufacturer Coca Cola; international engineering, management, and development consultancy Mott MacDonald; waste and circular economy experts WRAP; and the Exeter University Global Centre for the Circular Economy working together with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF).

Government members, regulators and policy makers charged with marine legislation and environmental protection will benefit from enhanced scientific evidence of the effects of microplastic pollution. Policy documents such as the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) Descriptor 10: Marine Litter, which requires that all EU member states consider how Good Environmental Status (GES) will be achieved by 2020. This includes the need to keep marine litter at levels that will not cause harm, and our results could help to inform on suitable targets for achieving this. Our research will also contribute new knowledge in support of the UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 "Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development", specifically Goal 14.1 that states 'By 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution'.

The general public includes those who are interested in conservation of marine life, enjoying the benefits of marine recreational activity and eating seafood. Our results will be beneficial in providing an enhanced understanding of what happens to microplastic once it enters the marine environment, where it goes and what effects it has. This will help in determining how safe it is to eat seafood and what the likely influence of marine litter in degrading marine habitats is likely to be. This information could help in personal choices and campaigns to reduce or clean up litter. We will also generate new knowledge for species that live and flourish at the ocean floor, enhancing understanding of the diversity of marine life.
The PDRAs will be provided with the opportunity to develop their awareness of, and skills in, science communication and knowledge transfer by; a) participating in educational outreach events run by the educational organisation and long term collaborator Digital Explorer, such as their 'Oceans Academies' and Skype Classrooms; b) encouraging them to author articles for the popular press and social media; c) attending a NERC training course on science communication.


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Burrows S (2020) Expanding exploration of dynamic microplastic surface characteristics and interactions in TrAC Trends in Analytical Chemistry

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Ita-Nagy D (2022) Prevalence of microplastics in the ocean in Latin America and the Caribbean in Journal of Hazardous Materials Advances

Description We have developed new methods for characterising microplastics in the marine environment
We have mapped hotspots of contamination in the UK shelf seas
We have identified ecological traits that predispose marine organisms to exposure
Exploitation Route furthering research into an emerging pollutant of concern to the environment and human health
Sectors Chemicals


Description methods and results are informing environmental protection policy and practice
First Year Of Impact 2022
Sector Environment
Description influence policy
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a guidance/advisory committee
Impact expert advice
Description Exploring the nanoscale surface interactions of microplastics in natural waters
Amount £140,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Queensland 
Sector Academic/University
Country Australia
Start 01/2019 
End 01/2023
Title new methods for measuring emerging contaminants 
Description new methods for measuring emerging contaminants 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2022 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact new methods for measuring emerging contaminants 
Description collaboration with industry 
Organisation South West Water Ltd
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution collaboration with South West Water
Collaborator Contribution Collaboration as PI and CoI in new award funded by industry
Impact not yet started
Start Year 2023
Description outreach event 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact media interviews
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description research talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact talk to GSK employees
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description research talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact talk to industry: Pepsico
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021