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Disappearing into thin air? Understanding degradation of plastic polymers in soils and freshwaters

Lancaster Environment Centre

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Dr B Surridge Applications accepted all year round

About the Project

Plastic pollution is one of the most pervasive threats facing global ecosystems. However, very little is known about the processes and governing factors that control the persistence of plastic polymers within environmental matrices such as soil or freshwater. This PhD aims to advance fundamental understanding of biotic and abiotic degradation of polymers. Firstly, whether polymers are stable or are degraded determines the lifetime of plastic pollution in the environment. Secondly, developing future solutions for plastics management, including synthesising and establishing evaluation protocols for so-called biodegradable plastics, depends on understanding the controls on biodegradation of plastics in the environment. Finally, the potential for biodegradation of plastics to influence other chemical element cycles, in particular the global carbon cycle, is currently unconstrained.

The biodegradation of plastic polymers relies on colonisation of particle surfaces by bacteria and fungi. Following colonisation, enzyme hydrolysis of polymers is required to yield low molecular weight products that may be used by the microbial community within an environment, either to support respiration or in the synthesis of new biomolecules. This conceptual model has recently been proposed for soil ecosystems. However, very little research has addressed the processes, or processes controls that underpin this conceptual model. Further, this model has not been extended to other environments in which plastics will be found, including freshwaters. This PhD will address a number of these challenges. The key elements of the programme of research are likely to include:

1. Developing surface analysis techniques to enable the colonisation of synthetic and natural polymer surfaces by bacteria and fungi to be characterised in both freshwater and terrestrial environments.

2. Determining how the colonisation and degradation of polymers is controlled by polymer type; polymer properties (microstructural, thermal, physical); polymer age and degree of weathering; and nutrient stoichiometry within freshwater and terrestrial environments.

3. Determining the fate of products from the biodegradation of polymers, alongside the control exerted on this fate by environmental factors within freshwater and terrestrial environments.

4. Critically evaluating how the knowledge gained from elements 1-3 can inform the design, creation and implementation of more sustainable solutions for future plastic management, including the promotion of biodegradable products in plastics markets.

Context for the project

This project will be based within the Leverhulme Doctoral Training Centre for Material Social Futures ( The doctoral training is collaborative partnership between Institute for Social Futures ( and the Materials Science Institute (

Based in the Lancaster Environment Centre but with close collaboration across Chemistry and Lancaster University Management School, you will undertake your PhD alongside other PhD researchers investigating multiple natural and social science aspects of Material Social Futures. In the specific context of the future of plastics, your PhD will complement additional PhD research in the centre.

Further details

• Start date for the studentship will be October 2020.
• The studentship will cover full payment of academic fees (at standard UKRI rate) and a maintenance stipend (£15,009 per annum, subject to annual inflation increments) for a duration of 3 years;
• The studentship is available to all UK and EU citizens;
• Access to a Research Training Support Grant for research-related expenses to the value of at least £800 per annum;
• Access to a range of training and development provided by the MSF, LEC, FST
• You would be expected to spend ca. 20% of your time on the Material Social Futures training programme in years 1 and 2;
• The Material Social Futures PhD programme will offer internships (including international placements) in the second and/or third year of training.


Candidates must hold a Bachelor’s degree at first or upper second-class level, and may also benefit from having a suitable Master’s degree or equivalent (completed by October 2020. Candidates will preferably have a background and academic interest in any combination of chemistry, environmental science or materials science.

Application Details

To apply, please submit the following documents by email to [Email Address Removed]:

• A full CV, including two named referees
• A covering letter (not exceeding 2 pages of A4) outlining your suitability for a PhD and your interest in this opportunity.
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