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Sources, transport pathways and fate of plastic litter in rivers

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  • Full or part time
    Dr M Powell
    Dr M Whelan
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Environmental pollution by synthetic polymers (plastics) is a global problem that can have some major impacts on wildlife and human health and on environmental aesthetics1-3. Although interest has focused on marine environments, there is an increasing awareness that much of the pollution originates on land2 and is transferred to the oceans by rivers4-5. Few studies, however, have sought to characterise the sources, fluxes and stores of plastic pollution in river systems. Current global estimates of the terrestrial export of plastic to the oceans are, therefore, based on crude models and poorly constrained generalisations concerning rates of plastic supply to rivers and its subsequent transfer through channel network and as a result, are, subject to considerable uncertainty.

This project will develop our understanding of how plastic litter is supplied to and transferred though river systems to the ocean by developing a robust modelling framework for plastic supply and transport. Initial focus will be on the physical transport of macro plastic using bottles as a model litter item6 taking account of river dynamics7,8 and environmental mapping techniques9. The few studies that have quantified plastic pollution in rivers have estimated loads using concentration (in samples) and discharge 4,5. However, plastic supply and transport is likely to be highly intermittent and may be better understood in terms of the displacement of individual litter items as they move between sites of temporary storage (e.g. deposition on the bed, beaching on bars, banks, floodplains and trapping by vegetation).

We aim to develop a fundamentally different approach to understanding plastic travel distances, drawing on the well-established body of sediment transport research11-15. The framework will be developed using GPS trackers to characterise travel time distributions for plastic bottles and to identify sites of litter accumulation and storage in a study catchment near Leicester.

Entry requirements

Applicants are required to hold/or expect to obtain a 1st class UK Bachelor Degree in Geography or Environmental Science and have a background in Fluvial Geomorphology.

The University of Leicester English language requirements apply where applicable:

How to apply

You should submit your application using our online application system:

Apply for Geography (Science) Research

In the funding section of the application please include project code: SGGE-WHELAN-19 MPhil

In the proposal section please provide the name of the supervisor and project title.

Include a CV and a personal statement explaining your interest in the project and why we should consider you together with all other relevant application documents.

Project / Funding Enquiries: Dr Mark Powell [Email Address Removed] or Dr Mick Whelan [Email Address Removed]

Application enquiries to [Email Address Removed]

Closing date for applications: 22nd August

Funding Notes

The studentship will provide Home/EU fees, consumables and travel costs (£1,673) and a tax-free stipend of £4,000 for 1 year.


1Andrady, A.L. (2003) ‘Plastics and the environment’. Wiley, Chichester.
2Andrady, A.L. (2011) ‘Microplastics in the marine environment’. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 62, 1596-1605.
3Dris, R., Imhof, H.K., Sanchez, W., Gasperi, J., Galgani, F., Tassin, B., Laforsch, C. (2015) ‘Beyond the Ocean: Contamination of freshwater ecosystems with (micro-) plastic particles’. Envrionmental Chemistry, 12, pp. 539-550.
4Lebreton, L.C.M., Van der Zwet, J., Damsteeg, J-W., Slat, B., Andrady, A., Reisser, J. (2016) ‘River plastic emissions to the world’s oceans’. Nature Communications, 8, pp. 15611.
5Schmidt, C., Krauth, T., Wagner, S. (2017) Environmental Science and Technology, 51, 12246-12253.
6Earthwatch (2017) Plastic Rivers: reducing the plastic pollution on our doorstep. Accessed 15/7/19.
7Hurley, R., Woodward, J., Rothwell, J.J. (2018) ‘Microplastic contamination of river beds significantly reduced by catchment-wide flooding’. Nature Geoscience, 11, 251-257.
8Van Emmerik, T., Kieu-Le, T., Loozen, M., van Oeveren, K., Strady, E., Bui,W-T., Egger, M., Gasperi, J., Lebreton, L., Nguyen, P-D., Schwarz, A., Slat, B., Tassin, B. (2018) ‘A methodology to characterize riverine macroplastic emission into the ocean’. Frontiers in Marine Science, 17, ??
9Siegfried, M., Koelmans, A.A., Besseling, E., Kroeze, C. (2017) Export of microplastics from land to sea. A modelling approach. Water Research, 127, 249-257.
10Hassan, M., Church, M.A. (1992) ‘The movement of individual grains on the stream bed’. In Billi, P., Hey, C.R., Thorne, C. (Eds) The Dynamics of Gravel Bed Rivers, Wiley, Chichester, 159-173.
11Parsons, A.J., Wainwright, J.W., Powell, D.M., Kaduk J., Brazier, R. (2004) ‘A conceptual model for determining soil erosion by water’. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 29, 1293-1302.
12Wainwright, J.W., Parsons, A.J., Müller, E.N., Brazier, R.E., Powell, D.M., Fenti, B. (2008) ‘A transport-distance approach to scaling erosion rates: 1. Background and model development’. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 33, 813–826.
13Wainwright, J.W., Parsons, A.J., Müller, E.N., Brazier, R.E., Powell, D.M., Fenti, B. (2008) ‘A transport-distance approach to scaling erosion rates: 2. Sensitivity and evaluation of MAHLERAN’. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 33, 962–984.
14Wainwright, J.W., Parsons, A.J., Müller, E.N., Brazier, R.E., Powell, D.M., Fenti, B. (2008) ‘A transport-distance approach to scaling erosion rates: 3. Evaluating scaling characteristics of MAHLERAN’. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 33, 1113–1128.

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