Do agricultural microplastics undermine food security and sustainable development in developing countries?

Funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund

David Jones, David Chadwick & Adam Charlton

Project summary: Plastic pollution in agricultural soils is now acknowledged to be one of the most important risks to soil health, sustainable agriculture, food security and economic growth in many major ODA-target countries (e.g. China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka). In China, where the problem is most severe, microplastic contamination and associated toxins now affects 20 million hectares of farmland with this predicted to increase by a further 10 million hectares over the next decade. From the available evidence, it is clear that we need to (i) better quantify the negative impact of this plastic contamination, and (ii) demonstrate the benefits of more sustainable alternatives (i.e. bioplastics). This project therefore brings together a multidisciplinary team from both the UK and China to address this topic of major international significance. The key aims of this project are to undertake joint research to quantify the damage that microplastics (and bioplastics) have on soil health.

Microbial hitch-hikers of marine plastics: the survival, persistence & ecology of microbial communities in the Plastisphere

Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council 2019–2023

Peter Golyshin, Peter Robins, David N. Thomas, Davey Jones, Alexander Yakunin

Project summary: Our understanding of microbial colonisation of marine plastics is limited to descriptive taxonomic studies, which have highlighted the huge diversity of bacteria able to ‘hitch-hike’ on plastic debris. However, quantifying and understanding the potential role of marine plastic debris for the persistence and dispersal of potentially pathogenic microorganisms is of pressing importance and global significance. This ambitious project will characterise the range of microbial colonisation dynamics on microplastics, from their source through to delivery at ocean receptors. By quantifying the processes of pathogen colonisation and dispersal, together with microbial biodegradation of plastic-associated toxins, the “Plastic-Vectors Project” will address key challenges, and deliver a step-change in our understanding of the human health risks associated with microplastics in coastal environments. By characterising the importance of microplastics as an environmental reservoir and vector for microbial communities, this project will have far-reaching implications for human health and well-being, coastal ecosystem services and economic stability. By understanding the multi-pollutant and multi-scale effects of microplastics, the “Plastic Vectors Project” will deliver a more accurate risk assessment of microplastics by integrating the effects of harmful plastic-associated microbes together with chemical co-pollutants.

Quantification of microplastics in UK inland and coastal waters

Christian Dunn

Developing an effective technique for quantifying microplastic pollution in water samples. Previously looked at a range of inland waters and river catchments across the UK and currently working on similar analysis in watersystems in all the Sottish, English and Welsh National Parks.

Removal of microplastics from watersystems using Constructed Treatment Wetlands

Christian Dunn

Investigating the potential of using specially adapted Constructed Treatment Wetlands (CTWs) and natural wetlands to remove micro and nanoplatics from polluted water. This has the potential to protect sensitive marine and aquatic habitats from plastic pollution.

Bioplastics and plastic alternatives

Adam Charlton, Rob Elias and the BioComposites team

These varied projects all have strong links to industry and are focused on encouraging close collaboration with the packaging sector across Wales, UK and other world regions. Such projects include:

  1. Stoverpack- creating a new value proposition for maize stover in Uganda (Innovate Uk/ DFID): Total project value: ~£400,000
  2. BioWill: Integrated “Zero Waste” Biorefinery utilising all fractions of Willow feedstock for the production of bio-Chemicals/and materials, biomethane and natural fertilisers (Interreg NWE) Total project value : NWE€3.7 Million
  3. BEACON: A Biorefining Centre of Excellence for Wales (ERDF) Bangor grant: ~£700,000.

Dispersal of Microplastics in the Marine Environment

Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council Oct 2019 - Mar 2023

Simon Neill, Peter Robins, Matt Lewis and Nia Jones

In this NERC studentship, we are using a range of tools to quantify the transport of microplastics over a wide range of scales, from their dispersal via large scale ocean currents through to entrainment by localized coastal processes. The project will result in revised budget estimates of microplastics at all scales in the marine environment.

South East Asia MArine Plastics (SEAmap): Reduction, Control and Mitigation of Marine Plastic Pollution in the Philippines

Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council Oct 2020 - Sep 2023

Simon Neill, Peter Robins, Christian Dunn, Matt Lewis, Martin Skov, Jan Hiddink.

An estimated 5 million tonnes of plastic enters SE Asian waters each year, with much of this ending up in the coastal environment. The Philippines, with a population of 110 million, relies strongly on coastal tourism for its economy, and Philippine marine plastic pollution has been attributed to the reliance on single-use plastic (SUP) for everyday household essentials. Although research to date has focused on identifying the quantity and location of plastics, such as the much publicised but potentially misleading "vast ocean garbage patches" (which are, in reality, more like plastic soups), less research has been conducted on determining transport pathways and budgets of marine plastics. In this project, we will focus on the Cebu Islands (Philippines). The challenge of reducing the impacts of marine plastics in this region is acute, and there is an urgent need for sustainable economic development. The Cebu Islands are home to the biggest marine protected area in the Philippines. Through the development of a Sources-Pathways-Receptor (SPR) modelling framework, in this project we will map the transport of marine plastic litter (MPL) from source to sink. The model will incorporate novel non-conservative terms to simulate transformation of the plastic waste as it travels through the system, incorporating, among other processes, changes due to exposure to UV light and mechanical degradation due to wave action. We will focus on the impacts of the plastic waste to mangroves - an unknown but potentially important filter in the plastic cycle. It is known that mangroves capture macroplastics (plastics larger than 5 mm) in their roots, and through the intense burrowing activities of bioturbators such as crabs can act as excellent filters and sinks for relatively large pieces of plastic. However, we will determine the role of mangroves in the microplastic (plastics less than 5 mm) cycle, since mangroves could, in fact, act to further disperse plastic as even smaller particles over longer timescales. By accurately resolving the content and type of MPL in space and time, the impact to receptors (services, industry and environment) will be accurately assessed: both physically (mortality and impact to ecosystem function) but also economically (to industries such as fisheries, aquaculture and tourism).