Plastic Pollution Connectivity between Land and River


Plastic Pollution Connectivity between Land and River


Project Description


Professor William Blake (School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Plymouth) contact me

Professor Richard Thompson (School of Biological and Marine Sciences, University of Plymouth)

Dr Richard Cooper (School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia)

Dr Sabine Lengger (School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Plymouth)

Project Background

The media spotlight on plastic pollution in recent years has translated into an urgent call for action by the public, policy makers and industry. While the ubiquity of microplastic pollution within marine ecosystems is widely recognised (Law and Thompson, 2014), less attention has focussed on plastic materials transported from rural catchment sources to rivers (Windsor et al., 2019).

This project aims to deliver novel information on the types, abundance and transport pathways of plastic pollution from rural catchments to rivers. There has been a dramatic increase in the use of plastics in agriculture (sheeting, polymer coating on agrochemicals etc) to increase sustainability of UK food production. While polymer-based agricultural products are often marketed as ‘bio-degradable’, there is a dearth of knowledge regarding environmental behaviour of degradation products, transfer via soil erosion from land to aquatic ecosystems and residence time therein.

The interdisciplinary research methodology will integrate hydrological (land-water connectivity, Blake et al., 2020), environmental forensic (sediment fingerprinting and residence time, Blake et al., 2018) and analytical sciences (Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) Spectroscopy, gas chromatography and mass spectrometry (GCMS)) (Watteau et al., 2018) to develop novel quantitative evidence of plastic pollution in catchment soil and river sediment transfers and sinks. Results will inform development of a scalable and transferable mapping tool of sources and quantities of plastic pollution in catchments linked to the Westcountry Rivers Trust mission within an EU Intereg programme Preventing Plastic Pollution (PPP). Study sites are the Tamar (South Devon) and Wensum (Norfolk) catchments drawing on wider data from the Defra Demonstration Test Catchment programme.


Working alongside current NERC, BBSRC and EU research programmes, training will be given in advanced catchment survey and sampling, soil and sediment sampling protocols and the above state-of-the-art analytical and diagnostic methodologies. They will gain experience working within an ISO9001 certified framework. CASE partner, Westcountry Rivers Trust, will provide multidisciplinary training in applied data and evidence application and policy development.

Person Specification

The successful candidate will have a degree in environmental sciences, geography or related discipline with experience in river basin processes, environmental diagnostic tools (field- and laboratory-based), and /or Geographical Information Systems (GIS) applications.


  • 1. Law, K. L., and R. C. Thompson. 2014. Microplastics in the seas. Science 345:144-145.
  • 2. Windsor, F.M., Durance, I., Horton, A.A., Thompson, R.C., Tyler, C.R., Ormerod, S.J., 2019. A catchment-scale perspective of plastic pollution. Glob. Chang. Biol.
  • 3. Blake et al., 2020 (in revision). Integrating land-water-people connectivity concepts across disciplines for co-design of soil erosion solutions. Land degradation and Development
  • 4. Blake, W.H., Boeckx, P., Stock, B.C., Smith, H.G., Bodé, S., Upadhayay, H.R., Gaspar, L., Goddard, R., Lennard, A.T., Lizaga, I., Lobb, D.A., Owens, P.N., Petticrew, E.L., Kuzyk, Z.Z.A., Gari, B.D., Munishi, L., Mtei, K., Nebiyu, A., Mabit, L., 2018. A deconvolutional Bayesian mixing model approach for river basin sediment source apportionment. Sci. Rep. 8:13073, 1–12.
  • 5. Watteau, F., Dignac, M.-F., Bouchard, A., Revallier, A., Houot, S., 2018. Microplastic Detection in Soil Amended With Municipal Solid Waste Composts as Revealed by Transmission Electronic Microscopy and Pyrolysis/GC/MS. Front. Sustain. Food Syst. 2, 81.

Key Information

  • This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP and will start on 1st October 2021. The closing date for applications is 23:59 on 12th January 2021.
  • Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship, which covers fees, stipend (£15,285 p.a. for 2020-21) and research funding. For the first time in 2021/22 international applicants (EU and non-EU) will be eligible for fully-funded UKRI studentships. Please note ARIES funding does not cover visa costs (including immigration health surcharge) or other additional costs associated with relocation to the UK.
  • ARIES students benefit from bespoke graduate training and ARIES provides £2,500 to every student for access to external training, travel and conferences. Excellent applicants from quantitative disciplines with limited experience in environmental sciences may be considered for an additional 3-month stipend to take advanced-level courses in the subject area.
  • ARIES is committed to equality, diversity, widening participation and inclusion in all areas of its operation. We encourage enquiries and applications from all sections of the community regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation and transgender status. Academic qualifications are considered alongside significant relevant non-academic experience.
  • All ARIES studentships may be undertaken on a part-time or full-time basis, visa requirements notwithstanding
  • For further information, please contact the supervisor. To apply for this Studentship click on the “Apply now” link below.

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