Presence, morphology and size distribution of nanoplastics and natural fibres in the environment


Plastics in the environment has been seen as one of the most important contemporary environmental issues since David Attenborough’s recent coverage of the topic on Blue Planet. Most research has focused on the marine environment though and very little is known about plastics in river catchments which are key source areas (Kay et al., 2018; Wagner et al., 2014; Eerkes-Medrano et al., 2015).  Previous research has shown that fibres are one of the most prevalent types of plastic in the environment (Kay et al., 2018) but some work (Stanton et al. 2019) has indicated that natural fibres are actually present to a much greater extent than man-made ones.

Aim and objectives

The overall aim of this project is to better understand the presence and characteristics of nanoplastics and natural fibres in river catchments. The specific objectives are to:

  1. Refine a state-of-the-art electron microscopy method for use with microfibers (using Transmission Electron Microscope FEI TITAN THEMIS 300 and Dual beam FIB. FEI Helios G4 CX DualBeam).
  2. Measure the presence and characteristics (chemical composition, morphology, size distribution) of man-made and natural fibres in river catchments.
  3. Undertake controlled experiments to study the environmental fate of microfibres.


The successful candidate will benefit from inter-disciplinary training in analytical techniques and chemical fate, as well as wider water management skills, as part of water@leeds and the Leeds Electron Microscopy and Spectroscopy Centre. 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.


Eerkes-Medrano, D., Thompson, R.C. and Aldridge, D.C., 2015. Microplastics in freshwater systems: a review of the emerging threats, identification of knowledge gaps and prioritisation of research needs. Water Research, 75, 63-82.

Kay, P., Hiscoe, R., Moberley, I., Bajic, L. and McKenna, N., 2018. Wastewater treatment plants as a source of microplastics in river catchments. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, , 25(20), 20264-20267.

Stanton, T., Johnson, M., Nathanail, P., MacNaughtan, W. and Gomes, R.L., 2019. Freshwater and airborne textile fibre populations are dominated by ‘natural’, not microplastic, fibres. Science of The Total Environment, 666, 377-389.

Wagner, M., Scherer, C., Alvarez-Muñoz, D., Brennholt, N., Bourrain, X., Buchinger, S., Fries, E., Grosbois, C., Klasmeier, J., Marti, T. and Rodriguez-Mozaz, S., 2014. Microplastics in freshwater ecosystems: what we know and what we need to know. Environmental Sciences Europe, 26(1), 1-9.