Developing Nature-based Solutions to Microplastic Pollution


Developing Nature-based Solutions to Microplastic Pollution


Project Description


Dr Matthew Cole (Plymouth Marine Laboratory) contact me

Dr Trevor Tolhurst (School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia)

Professor Pennie Lindeque (Plymouth Marine Laboratory)

Project Background

Microplastic debris is a prolific environmental contaminant identified in marine ecosystems across the globe. Plastic debris can have adverse impacts on marine biota, and the repercussions for ecosystems and socio-economic wellbeing have an estimated economic cost of $3300–$33,000 per tonne of marine plastic per year. Stemming the inputs of microplastic debris into the marine environment is a key societal challenge. This project will explore whether mussels and macrophytes could be used as part of a nature-based solution to stem the flow of microplastics from source to sea.

Key Research Questions:

  • Can mussels efficiently remove waterborne microplastics from polluted waters without causing harm to the organism and local environment?
  • Do macrophtyes (e.g. saltmarshes, seagrasses) promote microplastic deposition without causing harm to the local ecosystem?
  • How could these biological systems be incorporated into an effective nature-based solution to microplastics?


You will use a custom-designed flume tank and our recently refurbished laboratories to design, test and optimise different set-ups using both mussels and macrophytes for removing waterborne microplastics. Promising designs will be field-tested to evaluate their efficacy, practicality, and environmental impact. As project partner, The Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation will provide the opportunity to investigate the role seagrasses play in microplastic retention in the field and support their marine plastic research programme. Throughout the PhD you will be supported by an interdisciplinary supervisory team with expertise in microplastics, marine ecology, ecotoxicology, sedimentology and coastal processes. You will have access to workshops and in-house training, covering microplastic extraction and characterisation, experimental design, benthic analyses, scientific writing and statistics, and be encouraged to publish and present your work at international conferences.

This studentship will be based at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, and registered at the University of East Anglia.

Person Specification

The project would suit an exemplary candidate with a degree in biosciences, environmental science or oceanography. We seek an enthusiastic, dynamic and engaged candidate with a passion for conducting high quality research both in the field and laboratory. The successful candidate will join the microplastics research group at PML and undertake research placements with UEA and in Greece.


  • 1. Beaumont, N. J., Aanesen, M., Austen, M. C., Börger, T., Clark, J. R., Cole, M., Lindeque, P.K. ... & Wyles, K. J. (2019). Global ecological, social and economic impacts of marine plastic. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 142, 189-195.
  • 2. Lindeque, P. K., Cole, M., Coppock, R. L., Lewis, C. N., Miller, R. Z., Watts, A. J., ... & Galloway, T. S. (2020). Are we underestimating microplastic abundance in the marine environment? A comparison of microplastic capture with nets of different mesh-size. Environmental Pollution, 114721.
  • 3. Hale, R., Jacques, R. O., & Tolhurst, T. J. (2019). Determining How Functionally Diverse Intertidal Sediment Species Preserve Mudflat Ecosystem Properties After Abrupt Biodiversity Loss. Journal of Coastal Research, 35(2), 389-396.
  • 4. Huang, Y., Xiao, X., Xu, C., Perianen, Y. D., Hu, J., & Holmer, M. (2020). Seagrass beds acting as a trap of microplastics-Emerging hotspot in the coastal region?. Environmental Pollution, 257, 113450.
  • 5. Piarulli, S., & Airoldi, L. (2020). Mussels facilitate the sinking of microplastics to bottom sediments and their subsequent uptake by detritus-feeders. Environmental Pollution, 115151.

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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