Comparison of natural and plastic microfibres in rivers


Microplastics are the latest emerging pollutant to be studied in the environment although most work has focused on marine locations rather than freshwaters. Over the last few years research has begun to look at microplastics in river catchments although there remain many unanswered questions and our understanding of the issue is poor (Blair et al., 2017). There have already been a number of major suppositions which recent work indicates to be inaccurate. Some published research (Stanton et al., 2019) as well as ongoing work at the University of Leeds (Hiscoe et al., unpublished) has suggested that natural fibres (NFs) are actually much more prevalent in the environment than plastic ones and that our research focus should include these (Figure 1). This PhD will determine relative concentrations of natural and plastic fibres in the environment, investigate different sources of these and look at their environmental fate characteristics.

Figure 1. Microfibres (<5 mm length) found in the aquatic environment (source: Vancouver Aquarium).

Aim and objectives

The overall aim of this project is to better understand the presence, sources and fate of natural and plastic fibres in river catchments. The specific objectives are to:

  1. Measure concentrations of microfibres in river catchments.
  2. Investigate the release of natural and plastic fibres from various sources.
  3. Determine the environmental fate of microfibres.



The successful candidate will benefit from inter-disciplinary training in pollutant fate and analysis, wider water management skills, and textiles production as part of the Schools of Geography and Design as well as water@leeds. Training at Leeds deals fully with the elements described in the Joint Research Centre statement on skills training for research students. PhD students take modules provided by the staff development unit (e.g. starting your PhD, small group teaching) and a 15-week faculty-training course (covering elements such as planning, critical reading and writing, oral presentations, writing research papers). Students present results and receive constructive feedback from peers in a Research Support Group, from colleagues in water@leeds, and at a university postgraduate research day. An additional important part of the training will be to attend national and international conferences to present results and gain feedback. The student will be encouraged to write and submit papers for publication during the project.

Student profile

Suitable candidates will have, or be close to gaining, a good degree (1 or 2.1) or MSc in a suitable discipline, such as geography, environmental science or chemistry.