Microplastics in our oceans: how do they actually get there and what damage do they cause along the way?

The fate of plastics in the environment is a burning question and currently making headlines in the UK and globally. While most of the attention so far has focused on the accumulation of plastics in the world’s oceans, very little is known about the pathway of plastic once it has been used by humans and heads towards the sea, including the way in which it is transported, its fate and the impact it has on freshwater and terrestrial environments and public health.

A major concern about plastics includes the release of plasticiser products such as Bisphenol A, Nonylphenol and phthalates that represent endocrine disruptors that have the ability to interfere with the hormone system and can be cancerogenic, cause development disorders and birth defects.

To date, there has been just a handful of site-specific investigations of microplastics in freshwaters, which represent particles with sizes of less than 5mm. At the University of Birmingham, we are pioneering a fundamental system-wide understanding of microplastic behaviour in freshwaters. In the first-ever comprehensive research study carried out in the UK, we will assess how microplastics are transported, transformed and accumulated in river corridors, how they propagate through aquatic food-webs and impact ecosystem functioning and public health. This has been made possible by a four-year Leverhulme Trust project.

Our interdisciplinary research team is investigating how primary (manufactured) microplastics, such as microbeads in pharmaceuticals, and secondary microplastics arising from the degradation of macroplastics, are transported and transformed along their flow paths through our river corridors and potentially stored in accumulation hotspots in the environment. We are utilising the unique facilities (comprising ~100 individual water channels) at the University of Birmingham’s Environmental Change Outdoor Laboratory (ECOlab), to study the environmental and public health risks posed by the degradation of microplastics and the resulting release of endocrine disrupting plasticisers and additives such as Bisphenol A, Nonylphenol and phthalates.

To enable a comprehensive assessment, the gained mechanistic process understanding and predictive models developed from our artificial river and nanoscience laboratory experiments will be combined with the first systematic worldwide freshwater microplastics survey. This global perspective will allow us to identify risks and develop improvement strategies specifically tailored to the variable microplastics compositions and concentrations encountered in freshwater ecosystems worldwide.

Through our international and inter-sectoral steering cmmittee and supporter base, the research outcomes of our interdisciplinary project directly inform on-going policy debates in urban river management. The research provides other researchers, chemical, pharmaceutical and water industries and regulators with valuable information and a new set of tools to assess the risks from microplastics and their plasticiser additives to ensure environmental safety standards and thus, facilitate commercialisation of respective products in a safe and responsible manner.

To mark World Water Day (22 March 2018), international researchers and practitioners from water industries, consultancies, regulators and non-governmental organisations (including UNESCO) came together at the University of Birmingham in an event unique to the UK – organised by the Birmingham Water Council and the Institute of Global Innovation. The focus of discussions at the event looked at how we can best align our interdisciplinary research and practice to collectively solve today’s and tomorrow’s ‘Wicked Water Challenges’.

The Birmingham Water Council and the Institute of Global Innovation

The Birmingham Water Council facilitates the Institute of Global Innovations theme on ‘Water Challenges in a Changing World’ and allows us to address the global water crisis. It integrates interdisciplinary research from more than 200 researchers across all five of the University of Birmingham’s colleges, including Life and Environmental Sciences, Physical and Engineering Sciences, Medical and Dental Sciences, Arts and Law, and the Business School. The Birmingham Water Council leverages global networks, including the established UNESCO Chair in Water Sciences held at Birmingham. This critical mass in interdisciplinary water research allows us to tackle intractable or wicked global challenges across traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Stefan Krause
Professor of Ecohydrology and Biogeochemistry, Head of the Birmingham Water Council, Fellow of the Institute of Global Innovation

David M Hannah
Professor of Hydrology, UNESCO Chair in Water Science

Iseult Lynch
Professor of Environmental Nanoscience

Greg Sambrook Smith
Professor of Fluvial Sedimentology