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Are biodegradable plastics really better for the environment - impacts on the structure and functioning of ecological communities (TOLHURST_UENV23ARIES)


   School of Environmental Sciences

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  Dr T Tolhurst  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

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). 

Training 

The candidate will join the Centre for Ecology, Evolution and Conservation 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. 

For more information on the supervisor for this project, please visit the UEA website www.uea.ac.uk

The start date is October 2023.


Funding Notes

This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP. Successful candidates will be awarded a NERC studentship, which covers fees, stipend (£17,668 for 2022/23) and funding to support the doctoral research. Excellent applicants from quantitative disciplines may be considered for an additional three months’ studentship funding.

Unfortunately, no additional funding is available to assist with relocation or visa costs.

ARIES encourages applications from all, regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, age, or sexual orientation. Academic qualifications are considered alongside relevant non-academic experience.

For further information, please visit www.aries-dtp.ac.uk

References

This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP. Successful candidates will be awarded a NERC studentship, which covers fees, stipend (£17,668 for 2022/23) and funding to support the doctoral research. Excellent applicants from quantitative disciplines may be considered for an additional three months’ studentship funding.
Unfortunately, no additional funding is available to assist with relocation or visa costs.
ARIES encourages applications from all, regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, age, or sexual orientation. Academic qualifications are considered alongside relevant non-academic experience.
For further information, please visit www.aries-dtp.ac.uk
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