Quantifying the influence of waste water treatment on the release of microplastics to the environment

Quantifying the influence of waste water treatment on the release of microplastics to the environment

Director of studies, Professor Richard Thompson (School of Biological and Marine Sciences)

Second supervisor, Dr Philip Warburton (Plymouth University Schools of Medicine and Dentistry

CASE Partner UK Water Industry Research Ltd (UKWIR)

Applications are invited for a four-year fully funded NERC-CASE PhD studentship.

The studentship will start on October 1 2018.

About the award

This CASE studentship will address key challenges relating to microplastic contamination outlined by the government and its Environmental Regulators (DEFRA and the Environment Agency (EA) and water companies. The studentship opportunity offers a unique, timely collaboration focused on cutting edge research to address specific aspects of a global challenge. It will deliver multidisciplinary postgraduate training through collaborations between academic researchers and end-users at (UKWIR), water companies, as well as the EA and DEFRA. It will also offer a great insight into wastewater treatment (WWT) processes and the challenges faced by the water industry from microplastic pollution.

Project description

Microplastic debris contaminates aquatic habitats worldwide and can be ingested by a range of organisms, including commercially important species; raising concerns about impacts on wildlife and seafood. An additional concern is that the proximity of microplastics to faecal bacteria within WWT, suggests they could be a substrate for dissemination of pathogens. Minimising microplastic contamination is a requirement under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and the government’s 25 year environment plan, hence there is a need to reduce emissions. Microplastics accumulate within the environment from a variety of sources including: microbeads from cosmetics, textiles fibres and tyre particles. Wastewater has been identified as a potential key route in the transport of particles. Previous evaluations of emissions via wastewater are limited, and have reached contrasting conclusions; low emission in Russia, but the opposite in North America. In the UK, 5 per cent of the larger items of litter collected in beach cleans are sewage related, hence it is likely that substantial quantities of microplastics escape WWT. A further concern is that even if microplastics are captured in treated sewage sludge during WWT, this is commonly recycled to the land (in the form of biosolids) and so microplastics are still released to the environment. Little is known about the influence of different types of WWT on the retention or removal of MPs and no standard methods exist for this microplastic assessment in waste water or treated sewage sludge.  

Aims of the studentship:

1)   Develop and validate standard methods for MP quantification in wastewater and treated sewage sludge/ biosolids.

2)   Quantify types and quantities of MPs arriving at WWT and determine their likely source.

3)   Quantify types and quantities of MPs leaving WWT, via water and treated sewage sludge/biosolids.

4)   Examine the bacteria associated with MPs released to the environment.

The student will be based at the International Marine Litter Research Unit, within the Faculty of Science and Engineering, which is at the forefront of microplastic research. Its research has directly contributed to legislation in the UK and internationally. In REF 2014 85 per cent of our research under in earth systems and environmental science was classified as world leading or internationally excellent. The student will join a well-equipped, supportive and active research team at the cutting edge of the field, with PDRSs and PhD students focused on microplastic contamination and the social science aspects of marine litter. Our PhD training aims to develop world-class researchers, addressing strategic UK skills gaps. Full training will be provided.

The student will benefit from research facilities and support within the International Marine litter Unit which has dedicated technical support. Our current research includes a large NERC project on nanoplastics, PhD students focused on microplastic contamination and a further PhD student focused on social science aspects of marine litter. All of the required facilities are available including dedicated clean environment for microplastic separation, FT-IR spectroscopy for polymer identification, SEM microscopy and Malvern particle granulometry. Hence the student will be part of a very well equipped, supportive and active team at the cutting edge of the field.

The student will also benefit from our involvement with CASE partner, UKWIR, who will provide a placement opportunity of approximately 3 months with a local water company as well as relevant industrial training and access to WWT facilities to ensure wide applicability of the work. There will also be opportunities to attend scientific conferences as well as relevant water industry events and links to the industry’s network of experienced water professionals. Project partners the EA and DEFRA will provide technical input to ensure policy relevance and opportunities for the student to gain understanding of regulatory approaches and policy development.  

We are looking for a highly motivated, hard working person who is both collaborative and open-minded in their approach. The candidate should have good quantitative skills and a range of research methods as well as a broad understanding of the underlying causes and environmental consequences of marine litter. The position would suit a natural sciences graduate with a background in environmental sciences or biological sciences.


Applicants should have (at least) a first or upper second class honours degree in an appropriate subject and preferably a relevant MSc or MRes qualification and/or practical research experience.

The studentship is supported for four years and includes full Home/EU tuition fees plus a stipend of £14,777 per annum. The position is open to UK citizens and EU citizens with appropriate qualifications who have been resident or studied in the UK for three years.

If you wish to discuss this project further informally, please contact Richard Thompson or Philip Warburton. However, applications must be made in accordance with the details shown below.

General information about applying for a research degree at the University is available at: https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/student-life/your-studies/research-degrees/applicants-and-enquirers  

You can apply via the online application form which can be found at: https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/study/postgraduate and select ‘Apply’.

Please mark it FAO Aimee McNeillie and clearly state that you are applying for a PhD studentship within the School of Biological and Marine Sciences.

For more information on the admissions process, contact Aimee McNeillie.

The closing date for applications is 12 noon on 12 April 2018. 

Shortlisted candidates will be invited for interview on 2 May 2018. We regret that we may not be able to respond to all applications. Applicants who have not received an offer of a place by 15 May should consider their application to have been unsuccessful on this occasion.