Compostable and oxo-degradable plastics - saviour of the natural environment? An investigation of their long-term fate and ecotoxicity, from land to the deep sea.

   Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences

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  Dr I Kane, Dr A Garforth, Prof Holly Shiels  Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

Plastic waste is transported by wind, water and ice, in terrestrial and marine environments. Certain environments may act as longer term ‘sinks’ for plastics, e.g., the deep seafloor (kms deep), whilst others may only be temporary, e.g. river beds. Compostable and oxy-degradable plastics are designed to counter the growing threat of plastics discarded into the natural environment. This project will investigate the way that these new types of plastics decompose, and examine the different threats they potentially pose to the environment. Plastic degradation may be physical, e.g. macroplastics breaking down to micro- and nanoplastics, or chemical, e.g. leaching harmful additives such as Bisphenol A. Existing studies of plastic degradation typically replicate conditions at the land surface, however recent studies have shown vast quantities of plastic ultimately end up on the deep seafloor where environmental conditions are different (cold, dark, saline, high pressure).

This project will explore the plastic and microplastic sources, transport vectors, and ultimate sequestration in the natural environment. Using samples from the deep seafloor you will examine microplastic types (in collaboration with the National Oceanography Centre). You will use up-to-date extraction and analysis techniques, including Fourier Transform Infra-Red (FTIR) and Raman spectroscopy to determine polymer types. Based on this analysis, you will experimentally explore the decomposition of plastics encountered in natural environments, alongside the new types of compostable and oxy-degradable plastics. Techniques will include thermogravimetric analysis (TGA), differential scanning calorimetry (DSC) and pyrolysis coupled with gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (py-GC-MS) which can be used to obtain information on the composition of polymers. Based on these results the ecotoxicological implications of the study will be investigated. Oxy-degradable plastics and their decomposed products will be used in experiments on deep-water benthic invertebrates to examine uptake and distribution of plastics and their impact on aspects of organismal fitness such as growth, metabolism and a range of behaviours.

This project will inform our research within the Sustainable Materials Innovation Hub, and feed into RECOUP which will disseminate this information amongst key stakeholders. The project will provide training in laboratory analysis of microplastics, experimental approaches to plastic degradation, and ecotoxicological experimentation, as well as data analysis and processing. The student will join a large multidisciplinary group, having access to world-class facilities and the support of supervisors with leading expertise in environmental microplastic contamination, chemical analysis of polymers, and ecotoxicology.


At Manchester we offer a range of scholarships, studentships and awards at university, faculty and department level, to support both UK and overseas postgraduate researchers. 

For more information, visit our funding page or search our funding database for specific scholarships, studentships and awards you may be eligible for. 

Before you apply 

We strongly recommend that you contact the lead supervisor for this project before you apply. 

How to apply 

To be considered for this project you’ll need to complete a formal application through our online application portal

When applying, you’ll need to specify the full name of this project, the PhD name (PhD Earth Science (academic programme) and PhD Earth Science (academic plan), the name of your supervisor, how you’re planning on funding your research, details of your previous study, and names and contact details of two referees

Your application will not be processed without all of the required documents submitted at the time of application, and we cannot accept responsibility for late or missed deadlines. Incomplete applications will not be considered.  

If you have any questions about making an application, please contact our admissions team by emailing [Email Address Removed]

Equality, diversity and inclusion 

Equality, diversity and inclusion is fundamental to the success of The University of Manchester and is at the heart of all of our activities. We know that diversity strengthens our research community, leading to enhanced research creativity, productivity and quality, and societal and economic impact.

We actively encourage applicants from diverse career paths and backgrounds and from all sections of the community, regardless of age, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation and transgender status. 

We also support applications from those returning from a career break or other roles. We consider offering flexible study arrangements (including part-time: 50%, 60% or 80%, depending on the project/funder). 

Funding Notes

Tuition fees for 22/23 for home students is £9,000 and £30,000 for International students. Applicants are able to apply for University of Manchester funded opportunities.

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