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Bioavailability and biological effects of microscopic plastic debris in the ocean

Plastic litter on a beach. Photo: Matt Cole

Completed project

Project start: July 2014  |  Project end: June 2017
Funder: Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
Principal Investigator: 0
Other participants from PML: Dr James Clark, Elaine Fileman, Jerry Blackford, Professor Pennie Lindeque

Every year, millions of tonnes of plastic are discarded as waste, and marine plastic litter is emerging as both a threat to the oceans and a major challenge for society to manage. Once plastic waste has entered the marine environment, the combined action of UV exposure, winds and abrasion leads to the fragmentation of larger plastic debris into microscopic particles. These particles have become so numerous that they are emerging as a global conservation issue of high concern.

At PML we are working locally to take samples from across a yearly cycle to understand how the abundance of plastic debris and its ingestion by marine organisms may vary with seasonal cycles. Results from these samples are then used to assess factors such as the size, shape and type of plastic that influence how much microplastic is consumed and the biological effects that it may have on marine organisms.


This project will increase understanding and assessment of the risk that this litter may pose to organisms at the base of the marine food web, allowing scientists to provide evidence for environmental managers and policy makers who are required by law to keep our seas clean and reduce the risk of direct or indirect harm to human and ocean health. .

Results from the project have enabled PML scientists to feed into the report ‘Environmental impact of microplastics’ and provide evidence to the parliamentary inquiry.