Microplastics form from the breakdown of larger plastic pieces, leaking into the environment as part of production, and are added as microbeads to products such as face scrubs and toothpaste. Many millions’ of microplastics are released down drains and into the marine environment where they stay for hundreds of years.
Our multi-award winning and internationally impactful research has shown, for the first time, the vast extent to which microscopic waste is ingested by marine animals, and our findings are now actively informing policy change around the world.
That includes a UN resolution, a legal ban on plastic microbeads in cosmetics in the UK in 2018, which removed 4,000 tonnes of microplastic per year from the supply chain; and a proposal by the EU to remove microplastics from all commercial products. This alone will prevent a further 500,000 tonnes (or 9.76 trillion microplastic particles a year) from entering the oceans.
Prolific media coverage of our work has also reached hundreds of millions of people, improving understanding and supporting voluntary and regulatory initiatives around the world to reduce microplastic waste, protecting the environment and human health.
To study the fate and behaviour of microplastics in the oceans, our teams began by developing a number of methods to identify microplastics and highlighted UK shorelines were widely contaminated. The study then grew to encompass 18 sites across six continents, from the poles to the Equator.
Building on persuasive evidence of widespread contamination, our teams then began to study the toxic effects of microplastics on marine animals, exploring the harmful effects to animals on the seafloor and the wider implications for the entire marine ecosystem.
Dr Phil Heads - Director of Research & Innovation, NERC
As part of the ‘Arctic Mission’ expedition which included an international collaboration of academics from the UK and the USA, our scientists discovered plastic pollution on remote ice floes in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. Our teams are testing samples of Arctic seawater for microplastics and measuring the extent of plastic pollution in the Arctic Ocean. These baseline measurements will be invaluable in tracking changing pollution levels and the impact on wildlife.
Working with the Society for the Protection of Turtles, we’ve also found that green turtles are more likely to swallow plastic in natural colours that resemble their diet. The research is essential in finding out which kinds of plastic might be a particular problem and highlight the issues that motivate people to reduce overall plastic consumption and pollution.
By collating existing studies and scouring Twitter, our researchers have highlighted that hundreds of sharks and rays have become entangled in plastic waste in the world’s oceans, presenting a major animal welfare concern. As well as identifying the risks and the types of species most at risk, the research continues, with the team working with the Shark Trust to create an online reporting form to encourage gathering of more entanglement sightings.
By putting GPS and satellite tags in plastic bottles in the Ganges and the Bay of Bengal, our researchers have shown that plastic pollution can travel thousands of kilometres in just a few months. As well as feeding into global models to give a clear picture of how plastic moves across the ocean, the bottle tags could be a powerful tool for education, raising awareness and encouraging behaviour change.
Our studies have also shown how plastics in the ocean can release chemicals
that cause deformities in sea urchin larvae. We’ve demonstrated the direct implications for the development of larvae and the potential for impact on wider ecosystems. It’s all further evidence of the need to reduce plastic contamination of our environment and how that is essential for future generations.
We are applying our expertise and working with other institutions and organisations across the world to tackle this global problem. For example, working with the National University of Singapore, our researchers are discovering the impact of plastic pollution in the oceans of Southeast Asia and exploring solutions. We are similarly collaborating with the Galapagos Conservation Trust and a network of regional partners to investigate and understand the sources of plastic pollution in the Galapagos and wider Eastern Pacific region. We’re examining the impacts on fish, shellfish and the human food chain, and investigating the opportunities for prevention and recovery.