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Distribution of microplastics in the Scottish marine environment

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  • Full or part time
    Dr B Narayanaswamy
    Dr N James
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted

Project Description

Annually, ~13M tons of plastic enters the marine environment in a variety of forms, including microplastics. Recently, the UK Government banned microbeads from household products from late 2017. However, the marine environment is interconnected, so microplastics are not only transported globally to regions where there is little anthropogenic input, but also sequestered in sediments and potentially released for decades to come. As research into microplastics is still relatively new, their long-term impact is not yet known.

A recent study investigating litter around the UK highlighted the lack of samples from the western and northern coastline of Scotland compared to other regions. The samples that were collected, however, indicated high levels of plastic, which accounted for 50-80% of the litter collected there1.

This PhD will investigate the prevalence and distribution of microplastics by examining water, sediments and biological samples from a suite of pre-determined locations along the Scottish coastline. Comparisons will be made between rural areas (low population density/small-scale industries) and heavily commercialised regions to elucidate differences between regions, with the expectation that commercial regions have higher levels of microplastics. The potential interaction and impact of microplastics with the bivalve aquaculture sector shall also be investigated. As this is a relatively new area of research, methods for the collection and separation of microplastics from water, sediment and biota samples will need to be developed and validated. Particle-based transport models will be developed, using existing hydrodynamic models and a range of particle behaviours, to predict microplastic distributions and hotspots. Initially, this modelling will be carried out at a national scale using Scottish Shelf Model climatology and hypothetical source regions. Smaller scale models, where available, will be used to investigate local distributions.

The project will link closely to several of the priority employment sectors. In particular the Life Sciences, and also the Food and Drink, and Tourism sectors. Public awareness of microplastics in general is increasing as has been seen from the recent call to ban microbeads in household products.

Clean, uncontaminated environments of Scotland underpin the Food and Drink sector of the Highlands and Islands. The reputation and provenance of Scottish seafood is vital for local economies and global markets (microfibres have been detected in wild mussels at different locations around the UK2). Plastics are non-biodegradable, of no nutritional value to marine biota, and are known to adsorb a suite of micro-pollutants. The consumption of microplastics represents a potential pathway into the marine and potentially human food-chain. In addition, plastics can provide a mechanism for long distance transport of non-native, invasive species. This project will directly benefit this sector through increased knowledge regarding the presence, magnitude, and distribution of microplastics in the region.

The brightly coloured fibres from fishing ropes, breakdown of other plastics etc. makes them much more visible on beaches. This could potentially have an impact on the tourist industry, particularly in areas considered to be high natural beauty, with the result of fewer tourists wishing to visit coastal locations where there is a visible prevalence of fibres. Quantification of microplastics can be undertaken to highlight areas of high levels of plastic pollution and therefore provide a cleaning priority list for both regulators and local councils. Data collected, in collaboration with SEPA and MSS, shall help in the identification of plastic hotspots that can be correlated with the most popular tourist areas to help regulators and local councillors prioritise areas in need of clean up.

Applicants must possess a minimum of an Honours degree at 2:1 and/or a Master’s Degree (or International equivalent) in a relevant subject.

Supervisory Team

The student will be supervised by Dr Bhavani Narayanaswamy (SAMS – UHI), Dr Neil James (ERI-UHI) and Dr Andrew Dale (SAMS – UHI), in collaboration with Dr Brian Quinn University of the West of Scotland.

Research Facilities and Environment

The student will be primarily based at the Scottish Association for Marine Science - UHI, Oban, but will also spend periods of time at the Environmental Research Institute - UHI in Thurso and at the University of the West of Scotland, Paisley. The student will also liaise with colleagues based at SEPA and Marine Science Scotland.

Informal project specific enquiries can be made to: [email protected]

Funding Notes

This studentship is funded by the European Social Fund and Scottish Funding Council as part of Developing Scotland’s Workforce in the Scotland 2014-2020 European Structural and Investment Fund Programme.

The studentship covers fees at the Home/EU rate only, plus a stipend at the RCUK level, for a total of 42 months (including writing-up).

Funding is available for students worldwide, however non UK/EU students will be liable for the difference between home/EU and international fees.

Students must be domiciled in the Highlands and Islands transition region during the course of their study to be eligible for funding.


Nelms, S.E., et al., Marine anthropogenic litter on British beaches: A 10-year nationwide assessment using citizen science data, Sci Total Environ (2016), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.11.137

Courtene-Jones W, Quinn B, Murphy F, Gary SF & Narayanaswamy BE (2017). Optimisation of enzymatic digestion and validation of specimen preservation methods for the analysis of ingested microplastics. Analytical Methods, 2016, DOI: 10.1039/C6AY02343F.

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