Student Devises Innovative Research into Plastic Pollution


Every year an estimated eight million tonnes of plastic enters the world’s oceans, causing untold damage to the flora and fauna of the seas. Plastic has entered every level of the food-chain, even returning to haunt us in the seafood that is dished up on our plates. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling mass of plastic waste in the North Pacific, is estimated to be twice the size of France.

Alice Tickner, an Environmental Science student at the University of Worcester, is determined to help contribute to tackling this problem. Alice’s final year research project will analyse how easily microplastics are able to enter open waters having been flushed in to the sewage system. The study is being undertaken in conjunction with Severn Trent Water.

“Media coverage is often on plastic pollution that is highly visible on our beaches and in our seas, but recently there has been an increased focus on microplastics, particles that are less than 5mm in diameter,” Alice said. “A study like this one is extremely important as we need to determine all sources of microplastics in the environment if we are to effectively manage and reduce pollution levels in the future.”

“I am delighted to be working directly with Severn Trent Water to shine a light on this question,” she added.

Alice’s project will investigate how effectively Severn Trent Water’s Worcester sewage processing plant removes microplastics from waste water. The study will look at the presence of microplastics at different stages of the water treatment process in order to assess the plants ability to remove these plastics before they enter the River Severn, and ultimately the sea.

State-of-the-art facilities at the University of Worcester’s School of Science and the Environment will assist Alice in her efforts. High-powered microscopes and Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS) equipment will be used to detect both the quantity and type of plastic present at each stage of the water treatment process.

Dr Duncan Westbury, Principal Lecturer in Ecology and Environmental Management, and course leader of BSc Environmental Scienceat the University of Worcester said: “We encourage our students to engage with contemporary issues, including providing training in cutting-edge techniques. We have been working closely with the Marine Conservation Society, which has inspired many of our students to tackle the issue of plastic pollution head on.”

“It is excellent that Severn Trent Water are working with us on this project, the results of which are likely to have an impact on policies going forward.” he added.

A Severn Trent Water spokesperson said: “Severn Trent Water are delighted to be working with the University of Worcester on a microplastics study. Recent media coverage has highlighted the issue of plastics in our environment and microplastics is an important part of that. As part of the study, samples will be analysed throughout the Waste Water Recycling Plant at Worcester to determine how much impact our processes have on the amount of microplastics. At Severn Trent we take our role in protecting and enhancing the environment very seriously and this research is really important in understanding the issues and helping to reduce pollutants entering our UK watercourses.”