International Freshwater Microplastics Network

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Sch of Geography, Earth & Env Sciences


To date, most research into the impact of microplastics in the environment has focussed on marine (coastal and ocean) environments. However, there is growing acceptance that microplastics are also pervasive within freshwater (river and lake) systems. The limited number of studies from rivers around the world have all found microplastics to be present within samples of river bed sediments or the water column. This is of concern as the ecotoxicological impact of microplastics will likely have a negative impact on a range of freshwater species with an additional public health concern if pollutants associated with microplastics then enter the human food chain. A fundamental issue regarding the science of microplastics in freshwaters is a lack of data with which to generate physically based models. This thus makes it very hard to establish what are 'normal' levels of microplastics within our rivers and hence whether such levels represent an acceptable level of risk to ecosystems or society more generally, or where clean-up or remediation strategies should be targeted. To make meaningful progress, this issue requires international consensus to be agreed quickly so that ongoing and future research efforts can be properly synthesised to provide meaningful evidence-based policy. The purpose of this proposal is to meet this challenge by assembling a new network of internationally leading freshwater microplastics experts. This network will undertake a focused programme of data collection. By pooling this data and using it to generate new numerical models at a series of workshops the network will be able to reach more robust conclusions as to the overall freshwater plastic flux to the oceans. This will address the significant stumbling block the discipline currently faces and thus allow further development of more physically based models. Such a significant deliverable can only be achieved by the sort of networking opportunity that is facilitated by the global partnerships seedcorn fund.

Planned Impact

The main beneficiaries of our research activities will be;
National and international governments who have the responsibility for developing policy to reduce the use of plastics, to reduce the impact of any legacy of plastics which have built up over time and to mitigate any health impacts of plastics on the general public.
Environmental regulators who are tasked with quantifying the scale and nature of MP pollution and for enforcing targets for clean-up which have been agreed by policy makers.
Water utilities that operate sewage/wastewater treatment works and have frontline responsibility for ensuring potable water is safe for consumers.
Engineers who may need to develop new methods and techniques for water utility companies to facilitate the removal of MP from water.
Society for which the issue of MP in the environment has become an important topical issue, in part driven by popular science stories across different media outlets.

The beneficiaries identified above will all benefit in one key way; the quantitative evidence base with which to robustly define the scale of the MP problem in freshwaters will be significantly enhanced, allowing confirmation of current exposure levels nationally and globally. At present, given the ad hoc way in which MP have been sampled we do not know what type of threat is posed by MP pollution in freshwaters. In order for water utility companies to work with engineers to find solutions to removing MP they need to more fully understand the problem they are dealing with, not just in terms of overall MP abundance but also in terms of basic MP characteristics. For example, it is likely that spherical MP particles will move within traditional filter systems differently to fibres or fragments, for example. By generating this type of information we will be able to inform where existing methods work well for removing MP and also where new solutions may be required.


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