Combined Sewer Overflows: A Hotspot for Riverine Plastic Pollution?


Combined Sewer Overflows: A Hotspot for Riverine Plastic Pollution?


Project Description


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

Dr Andrew Mayes (School of Chemistry, University of East Anglia)

Professor Kevin Hiscock (School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia)

Professor Andrew Lovett (School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia)

Dr Lucinda Gilfoyle (Anglian Water)

Dr Vittoria Danino (Anglian Water)

Dr Rosalind Bark (School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia)


Project Background

Tackling the global challenge of plastic pollution is at the forefront of current scientific research efforts. Nevertheless, research to date has focused upon the marine environment and there remains major gaps in our understanding of the origin, transport and fate of plastics in river systems, hindering our ability to evaluate the ecotoxicological consequences upon freshwater ecosystems. Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) are potentially important hotspots for riverine microplastic and endocrine disrupting plasticizer pollution through the release of untreated sewage effluent from wastewater treatment works (WWTWs). Concerns posed by CSOs are highlighted in the new Environment Bill and this project will seek to address fundamental questions regarding the nature and impact of microplastic and plasticizer material being released from CSOs.

Research methodology

Focusing upon a targeted selection of Anglian Water WWTWs encompassing a range of contrasting treatment systems, this project will integrate hydrological and analytical sciences to develop a novel quantitative evidence base on plastic pollution in riverine environments impacted by CSO discharge. Through an extensive field and laboratory campaign, the applicant will first gather evidence on the abundance and composition of microplastics and plasticizers in water and sediments upstream and downstream of CSOs, before developing a scalable and transferable mapping tool to identify the concentration and loading of microplastics and plasticizers from CSOs into rivers across the wider Anglian Water region.


Working within a leading microplastics laboratory, the applicant will gain extensive field and laboratory experience in the collection and analysis of riverine water and sediment samples, including training in the operation of custom-built analysis equipment for microplastics, state-of the art Raman microscope and liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry. The student will develop skills in the R programming language for analysing hydrochemical datasets and Geographical Information Systems for developing spatial models. Close collaboration with Anglian Water will embed applicant learning within water resources management and policy, and provide opportunities for public engagement with local catchment partnerships and scientific conferences.

Person specification

Suitable candidates will have a degree in Environmental Sciences or a related subject and have a keen interest in Catchment Science with a passion for field and laboratory work.


  • 1) Cooper RJ, Hawkins E, Locke J, Thomas T, Tosney J. 2020. Assessing the environmental and economic efficacy of two integrated constructed wetlands at mitigating eutrophication risk from sewage effluent. Water and Environment Journal. DOI: 10.1111/wej.12605.
  • 2) Cooper RJ, Warren RJ, Clarke SJ, Hiscock KM. 2021. Evaluating the impacts of contrasting sewage treatment methods on nutrient dynamics across the River Wensum catchment, UK. Under review in Science of the Total Environment.
  • 3) Duncan EM,…Mayes AG, et al. 2018. Microplastic ingestion ubiquitous in marine turtles. Global Change Biology 25, 744-752.
  • 4) Hurley R, Woodward J, Rothwell J. 2018. Microplastic contamination of river beds significantly reduced by catchment-wide flooding. Nature Geoscience, 11, 251-257.
  • 5) Woodward J, Li J, Rothwell J, Hurley R. 2021. Acute riverine microplastic contamination due to avoidable releases of untreated wastewater. Nature Sustainability. DOI: 10.1038/s41893-021-00718-2

Key Information

  • This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP and will start on 1st October 2022. The closing date for applications is 23:59 on 12th January 2022.
  • Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship, which covers fees, stipend (£15,609 p.a. for 2021-22) and research funding. International applicants (EU and non-EU) are 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 non-academic experience, and our recruitment process considers potential with the same weighting as past 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.
  • ARIES is required by our funders to collect Equality and Diversity Information from all of our applicants. The information you provide will be used solely for monitoring and statistical purposes; it will remain confidential, and will be stored on the UEA sharepoint server. Data will not be shared with those involved in making decisions on the award of Studentships, and will have no influence on the success of your application. It will only be shared outside of this group in an anonymised and aggregated form. You will be ask to complete the form by the University to which you apply.

Applications are open

Apply now