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Science Topic

Plastic pollution

Plastic pollution is a growing threat to the world’s oceans, posing a serious risk to the health of marine life, ecosystems and society.

The properties of plastic that make it such an attractive material, such as durability, strength and low cost, also make it a lasting problem once it reaches the end of its useful life. Oceanic plastic pollution consists of large pieces of debris, including discarded fishing gear, bottles and plastic bags, but the most ubiquitous type of plastic debris by number are small pieces of plastic, known as microplastics.

Sources of microplastics include fibres from synthetic textiles, microbeads from cosmetics and industrial applications and larger items that have broken down over time. Other forms of microplastic include antifouling paint particles, tyre particles and biodegradables, collectively described as anthropogenic particulates.

Microplastics are ingested by a wide range of marine organisms, including ecologically important and commercially exploited species. Our research has highlighted that these microplastics can adversely affect the health of organisms by limiting their capacity to feed upon natural prey.

PML scientists are at the forefront of urgently needed transdisciplinary research to understand the key drivers of marine plastic risk at multiple spatial and temporal scales. Their work includes assessing the bioavailability and effects of marine microplastics on marine organisms and ecosystems, developing techniques to monitor and model the movement of marine plastic, and assessing the risk of marine plastics to key species, ecosystem services and natural capital.

PML scientists have contributed comprehensive evidence to the UK House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee's inquiry into "Microplastics and the Marine Environment" and provided input into the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POSTNote) on "Marine Microplastic Pollution".

One of PML's scientists, Prof Penelope Lindeque gave a presentation to the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee on "The problem of microplastics in our Marine Environment?" to raise awareness of the threat that microplastics pose to the marine environment. The Committee informs members of the Houses of Parliament, scientific bodies, industry and academia on issues where science and politics meet. It also demonstrates the relevance of scientific and technological developments on matters of public interest and to the development of national policy.

Support plastic pollution research  

PML Project pages

Other projects

BIO-PLASTIC-RISK: Investigating the environmental prevalence and risk of bioplastics.

TYRE-LOSS: Investigating the environmental prevalence and risk of bioplastics.

Micro-Opt: Developing optimised methods for determing ecotoxicological risk of microplastics

North Atlantic Microplastic Centre (NAMC): Collaborative network aiming to further understanding of risks posed by microplastics to our oceans, human health and society.

Developing NBS to Plastic Pollution: Testing capacity of mussels and macrophytes in stemming the flow of microplastics from source to sea

Exploring the impact of microplastics on food security (PhD project)

Plastico – GCRF project exploring prevalence, risk and solutions to plastic pollution in Chile, Peru, Ecuador and the Galapagos

Pacific Plastics: Science to solutions

Resources and Links

Media coverage

The work of the plastics team has received much national and international media coverage, click here for further details.


An international training workshop on microplastic debris was held in Callao, Perú in October 2018 and organised by Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the Instituto del Mar del Perú.

Plastics Task Force

Plymouth Marine Laboratory is part of the Britain’s Ocean City: Plastics Task Force. A partnership committed to reducing avoidable plastics in Plymouth. To find out more, go to: #PlymouthPlasticsTaskForce


  • ecosystem service assessment
  • socio-economic analysis
  • marine ecology
  • ecotoxicology
  • field sampling
  • experimental design
  • microplastics analyses (including FT-IR)
  • method development
  • molecular ecology
  • statistical analysis
  • ultraclean laboratories with FT-IR
  • Olympus SZx16 microscope and imaging system
  • controlled-temperature laboratories, including micro- and mesocosms, and flume tank

Selected publications

Cole, M; Lindeque, P; Fileman, E; Halsband, C; Goodhead, R; Moger, J; Galloway, TS; 2013. Microplastic ingestion by zooplankton. Environmental Science & Technology.

Clark, JR; Cole, M; Lindeque, PK; Fileman, E; Blackford, J; Lewis, C; Lenton, TM; Galloway, TS; 2016. Marine microplastic debris: a targeted plan for understanding and quantifying interactions with marine life. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Beaumont, N; Aanesen, M; Austen, M; Borger, T; Clark, J; Cole, M; Hooper, T; Lindeque, P; Pascoe, C; Wyles, K; 2019. Global ecological, social and economic impacts of marine plastic. Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Cole, M; Coppock, R; Lindeque, PK; Altin, D; Reed, S; Pond, DW; Sørensen, L; Galloway, TS; Booth, AM; 2019. Effects of nylon microplastic on feeding, lipid accumulation, and moulting in a coldwater copepod. Environmental Science & Technology.

Lindeque, PK; Cole, M; Coppock, RL; Lewis, CN; Miller, RZ; Watts, AJR; Wilson-McNeal, A; Wright, SL; Galloway, TS; 2020. Are we underestimating microplastic abundance in the marine environment? A comparison of microplastic capture with nets of different mesh-size. Environmental Pollution.

Coppock, RL; Lindeque, PK; Cole, M; Galloway, TS; Näkki, P; Birgani, H; Richards, S; Queirós, AM; 2021. Benthic fauna contribute to microplastic sequestration in coastal sediments. Journal of Hazardous Materials.

People who work in this area of research

Dr Elizabeth C. Atwood

Earth Observation Data Analyst
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Professor Nicola Beaumont

Head of Science - Sea and Society
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Dr Zara Botterell

PhD Fellow
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Dr James Clark

Marine Ecosystem Modeller
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Dr Matthew Cole

Senior Marine Ecologist and Ecotoxicologist
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Dr Rachel Coppock

Marine Ecologist
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Dr Samantha Garrard

Marine Ecosystem Services Researcher
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Professor Pennie Lindeque

Head of Science: Marine Ecology and Biodiversity
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Dr Victor Martinez-Vicente

Bio-optical oceanographer
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Hayley McIlwraith

PhD student

Dr Karen Tait

Microbial Ecologist
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Dr Ricardo Torres

Systems Modeller Data Assimilation
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Chris Walkinshaw

PhD Student
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