Car tyre on road with sunset

Scientists from the University of Plymouth have received Government funding to launch a new research project analysing the impact of tyres and clothing on the marine environment.

Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey has pledged £200,000 to explore how tiny plastic particles from tyres, synthetic materials like polyester, and fishing gear – such as nets, ropes and lines – enter our waterways and oceans, and the impact they have on marine life.

Following the government’s ban on microbeads, this comprehensive research will be used to improve our scientific understanding of how microplastics from other sources enter the oceans – whether through fibres released into waste water during a washing cycle, or car tyre friction on roads creating a dust of particles that make their way into the seas through sewers.

The 11-month project will build on research already underway, with some scientists estimating tyres contribute 270,000 tonnes of plastics per year while a study by the University has shown a single wash load of acrylic clothing could release over 700,000 microfibres into the ocean.

Speaking at the National Oceanographic Association’s annual conference in London, Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey said:

“The impact of plastic pollution on our oceans is one of the greatest environmental challenges of our generation. The UK is already leading the way in this area, but we want to go further – and faster. But we can only act where there is robust evidence, and through this exciting project we will build on work underway to better understand how microplastics end up in marine environment and what we can do to tackle this in the future.”

The research project is being led by Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University.

He oversaw Defra’s first research project on microplastics and their impact on the marine environment, which led to the UK’s pioneering ban on microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics and personal care products coming into force this year.

It will also build on a previous study by the University, which identified a single load of washing can release up to 700,000 fibres into the marine environment, by identifying the quantities of synthetic fibres and textiles released through storm water runoff, combined sewage overflows, treated effluent and airborne transport.

Professor Thompson said:

“The types of microplastics entering the marine environment are incredibly diverse, but recent estimates in Norway and Sweden have suggested that particles of tyre and debris from the road surface could be a substantial source. With very limited real data available to confirm the impact from these sources, there is a genuine and pressing need to establish the true scale of this issue. By combining this with an assessment of the quantities of microplastic from synthetic textiles, we can develop a more complete picture on the relative importance of various sources. We will be able to use our findings can to work with the Government, scientists and industry to try to prevent these particles entering the marine environment in the future.”

This project will build on the substantial research already underway on marine plastic pollution and the impact of human activities on the marine environment. It will be used to guide future policy priorities as the Government continues in its fight against the scourge of plastics. 

This includes the 5p plastic bag charge - which has led to 9 billion fewer bags distributed – and last month’s pledge to introduce a deposit return scheme for single use drinks containers, subject to consultation, and recent plans to end the sale of plastic straws, stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds.

It sits alongside the 25 Year Environment Plan commitment to eliminate avoidable plastic waste and the Treasury’s call for evidence on how charges and changes to the tax system could be used to reduce single use plastics.

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

Find out more about the International Marine Litter Research Unit
Marine litter

Plastic pollution and the planet

"In 2004, my team were the first to use the word microplastics to describe the microscopic fragments of manmade products in a research publication, it was not a word that many would have comprehended. After all, these fragments can measure a fraction of a millimetre in length, and be less than the width of a human hair.

"Individually, it is perhaps hard to see the potential harm they could cause. But when you consider some estimates suggest there are 5 trillion of these particles floating in our oceans, it becomes a different story. Our research has shown these items are now everywhere in the oceans, from our most visited coastlines to the remotest parts of the deep seas." 

Read Professor Richard Thompson's opinion piece

Professor Richard Thompson