Are biodegradable plastics really better for the environment – impacts on the structure and functioning of ecological communities


Are biodegradable plastics really better for the environment – impacts on the structure and functioning of ecological communities


Project Description


Dr Trevor Tolhurst, University of East Anglia, School or Environmental Sciences – Contact Me

Dr Dannielle Green, Anglia Ruskin University, School of Life Sciences

Dr Eoin O’Gorman, University of Essex, School of Life Sciences

Dr Adil Bakir, Cefas

Scientific background

Each year millions of tonnes of plastic are mismanaged, leading to their accumulation in the environment as litter. Almost half of this plastic debris is composed of single-use items including food wrappers, plastic bottles, and plastic bags, leading to calls for increased environmental regulation around the conventional plastics sector. Recently, there has been a drive to replace conventional, fossil fuel-based plastics with biodegradable ones; little is known, however, about their ecological impacts. Biodegradable plastics could be slow to deteriorate or even detrimental for ecosystems under natural environmental conditions, necessitating the field experiments in this project comparing the impacts of different plastics on the structure and functioning of ecological communities.

Research methodology

A series of in situ field experiments will compare the impacts of biodegradable plastic, conventional plastic, and paper bags on biodiversity and biogeochemical cycling. In situ manipulations will be conducted in the River Wensum in Norfolk, the Colne Estuary in Essex, and agricultural soils at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) in Soham, Cambridgeshire. Experimental plots (1 m2) will be marked out, with plastic and paper treatments secured to the substrate using metal pins. Degradation rates of plastic/paper will be monitored during the experiment. Invertebrate assemblages will be characterised at the beginning and end of the experiment using microscopy. Carbon and oxygen fluxes will be measured using gas-tight chambers, with nutrient fluxes quantified along depth profiles from cores. Research findings will be used to help develop policy to reach ecological good status (e.g. under UN Sustainable Development Goals no.14, UK Marine Strategy indicator D10 Marine litter).


The candidate will join the CEEC group at UEA The supervisory team will provide comprehensive training in essential environmental skills (e.g. FT-IR, fluorometry, cryogenic sampling, taxonomy, nutrient auto analysis, SEM). External training courses (e.g. mixed effects modelling) will be funded by the studentship and cohort training will be available through the ARIES DTP.

Person specification

We are looking for a candidate who is enthusiastic about field work, global change biology, aquatic and terrestrial ecology, quantitative biology, and ecosystem functioning; with a degree in ecology, environmental sciences, or similar.


  • Walkinshaw C, Lindeque PK, Thompson R, Tolhurst T, Cole M (2020). Microplastics and seafood: lower trophic organisms at highest risk of contamination. Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety. 190:110066.
  • Green DS, Boots B, Sigwart J, Jiang S, Rocha C (2016). Effects of conventional and biodegradable microplastics on a marine ecosystem engineer (Arenicola marina) and sediment nutrient cycling. Environmental Pollution. 208:426-34.
  • Green DS, Boots B, Blockley DJ, Rocha C, Thompson R (2015). Impacts of discarded plastic bags on marine assemblages and ecosystem functioning. Environmental Science & Technology. 49:5380-9.
  • Kratina P, Watts TJ, Green DS, Kordas RL, O'Gorman EJ (2019). Interactive effects of warming and microplastics on metabolism but not feeding rates of a key freshwater detritivore. Environmental Pollution. 255:113259.
  • Boots B, Russell CW, Green DS (2019). Effects of microplastics in soil ecosystems: above and below ground. Environmental Science & Technology. 53:11496-506.

Key Information

  • This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP and will start on 1st October 2023. The closing date for applications is 23:59 on 11th January 2023.
  • Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship, which covers fees, stipend (£17,668 p.a. for 2022/23) and research funding. International applicants are eligible for fully-funded ARIES studentships including fees. Please note however that ARIES funding does not cover additional costs associated with relocation to, and living in, 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, on top of all Research Costs associated with the project. 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.
  • 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 follow the instructions at the bottom of the page or click the 'apply now' link.
  • 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

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