Tackling the Plastic Waste Problem: Quantifying Polymer Contamination of the Terrestrial Environment

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Chemistry


The presence of plastics in the environment is a growing, global issue. As a petroleum-based product, plastic (polymer) ingestion is harmful to wildlife, human well-being and global-national economies. By 2050, ocean plastic is expected to weigh more than fish, unless costly and ongoing clean-up operations are put in place urgently. Most ocean plastic 'litter' originates on land with major rivers providing important source-to-sink pathways into the ocean. How effectively the problem of plastic pollution in the ocean can be resolved is dependent on establishing effective methods for surveying, quantifying and modelling pollution pathways on land and examining how these can vary through time. A key area in need of further research is developing long-term strategies to reduce the amount of plastic pollution reaching the ocean from the terrestrial environment. As the impact of plastic pollution increases with decreasing particle size, the investigation of microplastics (particles < 5 mm) is particularly relevant. This project aims to quantify microplastics in terrestrial sediment and soil samples, taken from major river systems in temperate, tropical and polar regions. Primarily, novel Py-GC/MS techniques shall be developed and implemented, alongside new analytical protocols. With the resulting spatial and temporal pollution datasets, source-to-sink litter pathways can be modelled and investigated, with a view to determining effective remediation strategies.


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