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Manchester Environmental Research Institute

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Plastics in the natural environment

Since mass production of plastics began in the 1950s the flow of plastics into the natural environment has been a growing problem and is now one of the world’s most pressing environmental concerns.

Ultimately this research aims to understand the nature of plastic contamination so we can develop strategies for mitigation, and techniques to evaluate the impact of mitigation attempts.

Ian Kane / Plastics in the natural environment lead

Our research aims to identify the sources and pathways that plastics take into natural systems, and to identify the contexts in which they are ultimately sequestered, and the ecosystems they affect.

Our expertise spans ecotoxicology, fluvial geomorphology, geology, sedimentology, nano- and microplastic extraction methods, plastic identification and characterisation, and covers the Earth’s surface, from mountain tops to lowland rivers and submarine trenches. We work across urban and natural environments.

Our research areas

  • large pile of recycled rubbish coming from a machine at recycling plant
  • blue set of molecules graphic
  • two scientists picking up microplastics in river and placing it in large bin
  • fish swimming in the sea surrounded by plastic debris
  • aerial view of a river flowing under a bridge surrounded by forest
  • Henry Royce Institute

Our researchers

Frank Boons
Professor of Innovation and Sustainability

Research specialisms: Sustainable plastics and circular economy of plastics.


Andrea Bottacin Busolin
Lecturer in Water Engineering

Research specialisms: Plastic occurrence in rivers and the physical processes of plastic transport in environmental systems.


Stephen Boult
Senior Lecturer

Research specialisms: Filtration of microplastics and the physical processes of plastic transport in environmental systems.


Alison Browne
Senior Lecturer in Geography

Research specialisms: Everyday practices of invisible plastics consumption.


Peter Budd
Professor of Polymer Chemistry

Research specialisms: Sustainable plastics, degradation of plastics, imaging and characterisation of plastics.


Martin Burgess
Research Associate

Research specialisms: Circular economy of plastics, sustainable plastics and recycling.


Cyrill Bussy
Lecturer

Research specialisms: Toxicity and ecological impacts of plastics.


Maria Canal
Lecturer

Research specialisms: Toxicity and ecological impacts of plastics.


Vicky Coker
Lecturer

Research specialisms: Imaging and characterisation of plastics.


Neil Dixon
Reader

Research specialisms: Bioconsumption, degradation of plastics, circular economy of plastics.


Lee Fielding
Lecturer

Research specialisms: Imaging and characterisation of plastics, circular economy of plastics, nanoplastics, sustainable plastics.


Alejandro Gallego Schmid
Lecturer in Circular Economy and Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment

Research specialisms: Circular economy of plastics.


Peter Gardner
Professor of Analytical and Biomedical Spectroscopy

Research specialisms: Imaging and characterisation of plastics, degradation of plastics, Infrared and Raman imaging of micro and nano plastics.


Arthur Garforth
Professor of Catalysts

Research specialisms: Degradation of plastics, imaging and characterisation of plastics, Circular economy of plastics, Analysis of cracking and hydrocracking.


Anthony Green
David Phillips Research Fellow and Lecturer in Organic Chemistry


Adam Greer
Research Associate

Research specialisms: Degradation of plastics, imaging and characterisation of plastics, plastic recycling.


Chris Hardacre
Head of the School of Engineering


Helen Holmes
Lecturer in Sociology

Research specialisms: Consumption practices, sustainable plastics and circular economy of plastics.


Claire Hoolohan
Research Fellow

Research specialisms: Everyday practices of invisible plastics consumption.


Mads Huuse
Professor

Research specialisms: The physical processes of plastic transport in environmental systems.


Ian Kane
Reader

Research specialisms: Plastic occurrence in the sea and the physical processes of plastic transport in environmental systems.


Paul Mativenga
Professor of Multiscale and Sustainable Manufacturing

Research specialisms: Microplastics, degradation of plastics, plastic occurrence in rivers and mapping resource flow.


Neil Mitchell
Reader

Research specialisms: Plastic occurrence in the sea and the physical processes of plastic transport in environmental systems.


Vahid Niasar
Senior lecturer and MS program director

Research specialisms: Microplastics, transport and filtrations of plastics and circular economy of plastics.


Sophie Nixon
Research Fellow

Research specialisms: Microbial degradation of microplastics.


Malte Roedl
Honorary Research Fellow

Research specialisms: Sustainable plastics.


Martin Rose
Honorary Senior Lecturer

Research specialisms: Toxicity and ecological impacts of plastics.


James Rothwell
Professor of Physical Geography

Research specialisms: Plastic occurrence in rivers and the physical processes of plastic transport in environmental systems.


Majid Sedighi
Senior Lecturer in Geotechnical Engineering

Research specialisms: Physical processes of plastic transport in environmental systems and filtration of microplastics.


Maria Sharmina
Senior Lecturer in Energy and Sustainability

Research specialisms: Circular economy of plastics.


Holly Shiels
Reader

Research specialisms: Toxicity and ecological impacts of plastics.


Kevin Taylor
Professor of Sedimentology and Tectonics

Research specialisms: Physical processes of plastic transport in environmental systems.


Aleksander Tedstone
Research Associate

Research specialisms: Degradation of plastics, imaging and characterisation of plastics, Circular economy of plastics, developing catalysts and engineering processes for chemical recycling of plastics.


Nicholas Turner
Professor of Chemical Biology

Research specialisms: Degradation of plastics, sustainable plastics.


Roy Wogelius
Professor of Geochemistry

Research specialisms: Physical processes of plastic transport in environmental systems and filtration of microplastics.


Lu Shin Wong
Senior Lecturer

Research specialisms: Degradation of plastics, Sustainable plastics.


Jamie Woodward
Professor of Physical Geography

Research specialisms: Plastic occurrence in rivers and the physical processes of plastic transport in environmental systems.


Our projects

By working with local partners, international scientific bodies and governments we will raise the awareness of plastic pollution and its effect on the natural environment.

  • Microplastics in UK waterways – we have a team based in the School of Environment, Education and Development who are looking at the origins, storage and transport of microplastics in river systems. Key contacts – Jamie Woodward & James Rothwell
  • Microplastics on the seafloor – we have a team looking at the transport and distribution of microplastics to, and on, the seafloor. SCAMPI (Seafloor Currents And Microplastics Investigation) is a collaboration between The University of Manchester and the National Oceanography Centre to investigate the role of seafloor currents in controlling the distribution of microplastics in the ocean. Key contact – Ian Kane
  • The Sustainable Materials Innovation Hub (SMI Hub) is being led by the Henry Royce Institute to support SMEs from across Greater Manchester to develop innovative solutions to develop a more sustainable approach to plastics use and lower their carbon footprints. Key contact – Martin Burgess
  • RE3 - Rethinking Resources and Recycling – is an ambitious multi-disciplinary collaboration between leaders in industry, government and academia at the University of Manchester on circular economy for reducing plastics waste. The project pulls in a breadth of disciplines in the University of Manchester, including engineering, economics, material science and geography, and has more than twenty industry partners. Key contact – Mike Shaver
  • Reframing Plastic Waste as a Resource is an extension to the EPSRC UK Catalysis Hub and will focus on the catalytic process for plastics to operate in a circular economy. Key contacts – Arthur Garforth and Aleksander Tedstone
  • PLASTICHEAL - Innovative tools to study the impact and mode of action of micro and nanoplastics on human health: towards a knowledge base for risk assessment. This EU consortium grant will look at the health implication of plastics looking at differences between plastic sources (air, water and food) and their effect on biological systems.