A major government-funded research study published today suggests particles released from vehicle tyres could be a significant and previously largely unrecorded source of microplastics in the marine environment.
The study is one of the first worldwide to identify tyre particles as a major and additional source of microplastics. Scientists have previously discovered microplastics, originating from microbeads in cosmetics and the degradation of larger items such as carrier bags and plastic bottles, in marine environments globally – from the deep seas to the Arctic.
Following the Government’s ban on rinse off microbeads, which is one of the toughest in the world, the Defra-funded study led by the University of Plymouth now reveals vital new information that will improve our scientific understanding of how tiny particles from tyres, synthetic fibres from clothing and maritime gear also enter the ocean.
This project will be used to guide future research already underway on marine plastic pollution and the impact of human activities on the marine environment, as the Government continues in its fight against the scourge of plastics. This includes the 5p plastic bag charge – which has led to 15 billion fewer bags distributed – and plans to end the sale of plastic straws and stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds later this year.
The study shows the tyre particles can be transported directly to the ocean through the atmosphere, or carried by rainwater into rivers and sewers, where they can pass through the water treatment process. Researchers estimate this could place around 100million m² of the UK’s river network – and more than 50million m² of estuarine and coastal waters – at risk of contamination by tyre particles.
Its findings also highlight some of the optimal places for intervention, for example, that fitting filters to washing machines could be less effective than changing fabric designs to reduce fibre loss, with another study at the University having recently shown that normal wear and tear when wearing clothes is just as significant a source of microplastic pollution as release from laundering.
The study was directed by Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit, and Plymouth researchers Dr Imogen Napper and Florence Parker-Jurd. It also involved Dr Geoff Abbott from the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences at Newcastle University (who developed a breakthrough method using mass spectrometry to detect tyre-derived microplastics in the environment), Dr Stephanie Wright from Kings College London, and Simon Hann from Eunomia Research & Consulting Ltd.
Professor Thompson oversaw Defra’s first research project on microplastics and their impact on marine life nearly a decade ago. It was this, and some of his team’s subsequent work, that led to the UK’s pioneering ban on microbeads in rinse-off personal care products coming into force in 2018.