Tyre wear concept. Old car bald tyre with very little tread remaining.
Scientists are expanding their efforts to establish the true abundance of tyre particles along the UK’s rivers and coastlines, and any threats they might pose to both human and environmental health.
Researchers at the University of Plymouth first started looking into marine debris in the early 2000s, with tyres being one of the more recent focuses amid international reports that such particles could represent the most abundant form of microplastics in the ocean.
They have since published a number of groundbreaking studies – including reports for the UK Government – exploring the scale of the issue in the UK’s rivers and oceans.
Thanks to a major project funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, the researchers are currently expanding this work to assess how far tyre particles can travel once they get from roads into our rivers and seas.
Working with colleagues across the UK, the researchers are also conducting pioneering studies examining how best to identify tyre particles amid the countless other forms of marine debris, and to examine any health risks they may create for wildlife and for humans if they are inhaled or ingested.
The ongoing work at the University is being led by its International Marine Litter Research Unit, whose scientists first established the presence of microplastics in the ocean in a seminal paper published in 2004.

We have been studying the presence of tyre particles in the marine environment longer than anyone in the UK and there has been significant progress. However, we still need to know more about how – and how far – they can travel and any threats they pose, questions we hope to answer through our ongoing work. We also need to bear in mind that with these particles having previously gone undetected, anything we find will be in addition to the other forms of microplastics such as textile fibres already in our oceans, so we need to keep considering the bigger picture when it comes to marine debris.

Richard Thompson OBE FRSRichard Thompson OBE FRS
Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit

The University’s past work in this area has been funded by the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.
It resulted in studies, published in 2020 and 2021, which suggested that particles released from vehicle tyres could be a significant and previously largely unrecorded source of microplastics in the marine environment.
That work led to the ongoing TYRE-LOSS: Lost at Sea – where are all the tyre particles? project, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation.
It has drawn together a number of research organisations and representatives from industry to quantify tyre particle concentrations at their points of entry to the marine environment, how far they can spread, and any harm they might cause.
To achieve this, scientists are regularly taking samples in the water column as well as from sediments from estuaries to the open ocean.
The wider team is also assessing the toxicology of the rubber used to make tyres, and expanding that work to the potential impact on humans as well. The results of these exploratory studies are expected to emerge in the coming months.
The current focus on tyre particles represents the latest form of microplastics to be studied by researchers at the University of Plymouth. Previously, they have highlighted the presence of microbeads in cosmetics, how plastic packaging can break down in the environment and the amount of fibres shed from clothing through everyday wear and tear and the laundry cycle.
Studies in each of these areas have directly influenced existing and emerging policy discussions in the UK and worldwide, and brought about changes in people’s behaviour as a result. However, Professor Thompson believes that with tyre particles, the shift from scientific awareness to policy and behaviour change could be a little more complex.

When it comes to tyres, it is not practical to simply stop using them. And as vehicle technologies change we don’t know whether that will lead to increased particles being produced as electric vehicles, despite cutting out exhaust emissions, are heavier and have greater torque. For now, our advice to drivers wanting to limit their environment impact would be to make sure tyres are properly inflated as that can reduce wear. Also, to think about how they drive to reduce their speed while cornering or not pull away from junctions too quickly. Ultimately we also need to influence changes in tyre design to help minimise the rate of particle generation.

Richard Thompson OBE FRSRichard Thompson OBE FRS
Director of the Marine Institute


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International Marine Litter Research Unit

Marine litter is a global environmental problem with items of debris now contaminating habitats from the poles to the equator, from the sea surface to the deep sea. 
Furthering our understanding of litter on the environment and defining solutions.
Marine litter