Skip main navigation

£199.99 £139.99 for one year of Unlimited learning. Offer ends on 28 February 2023 at 23:59 (UTC). T&Cs apply

Find out more

Case Study: Understanding Microplastics

In this video, we see Laura Robinson discuss her research into microplastics, in her role of professor of Geochemistry.
I think the biggest surprise that I’ve learned from the microplastic work that I’ve done is that microplastics are just astonishingly prevalent. So the places that I have worked and where we’ve looked at microplastics are thousands of metres deep, right out in the central Atlantic Ocean, so we’re really really far from anywhere. And what we do is we collect little sediment cores from the bottom of the sea, take them back to the lab and we treat them with forensic cleanliness, really careful to not have any contamination and in every single sediment core we’ve collected we found microfibers in all of them, and I wasn’t expecting that.
I’ve done deep sea research for years and we’ve always found tyres and coke cans on the sea floor, but you can imagine them being tossed off ships and stuff, but these are things that are being moved off the coastline and out potentially in the air as well. And not only that, we found the microplastics being ingested by deep sea organisms. So you go out to the deep sea and you see beautiful coral reefs and huge deep sea ecosystems and we think they’re out of sight and out of mind, they should be safe, they’re deeper than where ocean acidification is occurring, there’s no temperature change occurring there yet, but plastics are getting in there.
And when we’ve looked at deep-sea corals again, thousands of meters deep, we find plastics being ingested into their body parts and it’s quite a surprise really, you think it’s really a long way from us but there are plastics there. We can all see with macro plastics there could be problems in the environment because you can get entanglement and you see pictures of animals with plastics wrapped round them. As you go towards microplastics, the problems become more difficult to quantify. There can be issues where animals simply get full by eating up plastic, fills their stomachs and they can no longer eat, that’s clearly a problem.
And the other problem that people think is becoming more pervasive, but again it’s quite hard to tackle these problems and get rigorous scientific data on, is that microplastics can absorb pollutants in the environment. Because they’re small, and they’re micro size, they have a large surface area compared to the volume and they’re quite reactive on the surfaces so they can suck up pollutants. And they’re also made of petrochemicals and other compounds which can be released.
So if you’re an animal that eats a lot of microplastics there’s potential for these pollutants to be released into your system and then they can cause problems like problems with reproductivity, feeding, and all sorts of other issues like that so people have observed behavioural problems when animals had too many of these chemicals ingested. I made an effort today to pick my least plastic clothing and it’s actually quite a challenge, you know, if you look in your wardrobe likelihood is most of what you pick out is going to have some plastics in it.
Most of what you have for breakfast will have been packaged in plastic, probably your floorings got some plastic in, your countertops, your units, everything has got plastic in. About half of the plastics we use are single-use so those are getting out into the environment quickly. I think we make about 300 million tons of plastic a year and a large amount of that is getting out into the environment. Some of the microplastics are coming from the large bits of plastic that we have breaking down so it has a light damage it can break down or it can break down mechanically.
There’s also a lot of primary plastics and a lot of people who read the news, or listen to the news, will know there’s been campaigns to get rid of microplastics in cosmetics; they’re put in as facial scrubs, this sort of thing, and there’s a lot of microplastics that are put into cleaning products as well. So there’s quite a few microplastics that are actually produced to be microplastics whether or not we need them in our lives is debatable, there are other ways we can do it, but now that people are beginning to hear about that they’re beginning to step away from those and I think consumers are helping to drive that.
A lot of microplastics come off fibrous clothing so that’s another potential issue and there are small plastic beads and resins that are made as the beginning of the plastics process as well when plastic goods are being made and those can also be released into the environment. Finding the plastics enter areas we don’t expect them I think already helps to explain to the wider public why these types of contaminants should be thought about.
For instance, I’ve given talks and interacted with groups of artists and the public about this and when they realise that the plastics that we wear and we put out are actually impacting ecosystems that they’re never going to see, and that we’re never going to see, it does help them think about that. So last year Bristol was the Green Capital of Europe and that really helped motivate a lot of people in the city to look at ways to clean up plastics in Bristol. The harbour here drains out to the Avon which then drains into the Severn and the ocean so we know we’ve got a historic connection and a current connection to the sea.
The Harbour Master does a great job with volunteers at picking out litter from the harbour and the Surfers Against Sewage do cleanups all the way down the Avon as well so the community are really coming together and there’ve been other campaigns to do things like prevent the use of plastics in earbuds and so on and these are Bristol led initiatives that are actually making a difference locally and potentially on a bigger scale. Great, thank you very much, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. You too.

Laura Robinson is a professor of Geochemistry at the University of Bristol and the department of Earth Sciences. Her main goal is to document and understand the processes that govern climate over time scales ranging from the modern day back through hundreds of thousands of years.

Laura became interested in microplastics because of her surprise at finding them in the deep sea. She is now interested in developing research in microplastics and sharing her findings through outreach so that the public can understand the problem better. She is looking at how to turn her expertise and data into outcomes, so that everyone can address the issue. Through a combination of field work and lab work she has been tackling questions relating to:

  • Timing of Pleistocene climate change events

  • Palaeoclimate reconstructions

  • Deep-sea coral paleo-biogeography

  • Impact of weathering on the ocean and climate

  • Biomineralization

  • Development of new geochemical proxies for past climate conditions

  • Chemical tracers of ocean circulation

This article is from the free online

Unleash Your Potential: Sustainable Futures

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education