Plastics research

How does a palaeobiologist get interested in plastics?

Palaeobiology is the study of the evolution and ecology of ancient life. Palaeobiologists integrate data from fossils, sediments, biology, genetics and climate change to investigate how life has evolved to interact with, and indeed transform the environment on planet Earth. As a researcher I have endeavoured to take a truly holistic approach to consider and integrate understanding of the effects of processes which occur during fossilization. So I have studied in detail the transition from biological organic material (perhaps an entire carcass, or tissues or even biomolecules) to geologically stable material – a “fossil”. This spans transport mechanisms, decay and degradation processes, mineralization of organic matter and sediment and organic interactions during burial and diagenesis.

It is this broad background that sparked my curiosity about whether plastic research could take a similarly integrated approach – currently baseline studies of plastic occurrence/abundance/type dominate the literature. These studies are important but in order to understand the sources, accumulation and ultimate fate of plastic we must integrate data using a holistic, process-focussed approach. But, crucially, we must also understand the role of humans – we manufacture, use and discard plastics, and so we are responsible for the plastic pollution already in our environment, and its continued escalation. I believe a combined approach across traditional research silo’s is the best way to understand the cradle to grave journey of plastics – and thus to inform on the most appropriate solutions to this growing environmental crisis.

Plastics Research at Leicester

Since 2017 I have built a research team to investigate various aspects of the cycle of plastics. One focus is on considering plastic as an Anthropogenic component of the geological cycle – exploring transport mechanisms, dispersal, fragmentation, deposition, degradation and burial. Another focus is in working in developing countries on the problem of plastic pollution, working alongside social science colleagues (especially Dr Bernhard Forchtner in the School of Media, Communication and Sociology), government, NGO’s and various other organisations. Our team is a dynamic and supportive community and includes scholars from overseas (Malawi, China and Spain) as well as from the UK and EU.

Academics involved in Plastics Research at Leicester

School of Geography Geology & Environment

Professor Sarah Gabbott: plastics in the environment & in developing countries

Dr Arnoud Boom: organic chemist and lead on chemical analyses of plastics in our state-of-the-art laboratory

Dr Mark Powell: sediment transport in fluvial settings

Dr Catherine Russell: fluvial sedimentology and plastic transport

Professor Paul Van Gardingen: Deputy Pro-vice chancellor for International & Development

Professor Mark Williams: rate and degree of current environmental change from a geological context focussed on the Anthropocene

Professor Jan Zalasiewicz: the Anthropocene including stratigraphic analyses of this interval

School of Media Communication and Sociology

Dr Bernhard Forchtner: Environmental communication

Department of Chemistry

Professor Andy Abbott: Materials science with special interest in characterization and interface chemistry

Department of Neuroscience, Psychology and Behaviour

Dr Will Norton: Behavioural biologist

School of Business

Dr Marta Gasparin: Innovation and design management

Independent Research Fellow

Funded by The ACU (Association of Commonwealth Universities) Blue Charter Fellowship - part of the Commonwealth Marine Plastics Research and Innovation Framework

Dr Timothy Biswick: Microplastic abundance, type and fate in Lake Malawi

Research Assistants

Funded by Global Challenges Research Fund (Global Impact Accelerator Account) to Gabbott, Forchtner & Chiotha - Do plastic bag bans work, who do they affect and how?

Dr Maria Gonzalez Aguado

Dr Shuhan Chen

Funded by the UK Environment Agency, Seven Trent Water and Leicester City Council (Gabbott) -  Litter in the Willow Brook, Leicester: quantification of abundance, type and stranding behaviour

Sarah and Jacob surveying litter
Sarah and Jacob surveying litter

Jacob Embery

Kieran Martin


Thomas Snaith: Microplastics in sediments: an assessment of methods of extraction, quantification and chemical analyses

Current PhD students

Sarah Key NERC CENTA funded PhD: Degradation of plastics: the chemistry and solutions

Alice Fugagnoli: NERC CENTA funded PhD: Plastic a new anthropogenic component of the geological cycle: its chemical and physical behaviour and transformation

Alex Finnegan: based in the National University of Singapore. High-Resolution Palaeoenvironment Change in Southeast Asia

Yasmin Yonan: PhD funded through Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo, but based in Leicester. Identifying the Anthropogenic plastic signal in sediments and what it tells us

Masters Student

Connor Burchell: Using flume tanks to predict litter behaviour in rivers (with Dr Catherine Russell)

Recent Funding

Research projects

2019: Funded by Global Challenges Research Fund (Global Impact Accelerator Account to Gabbott, Forchtner, Chiotha) - Do plastic bag bans work, who do they affect and how?. This employed two postdoctoral research assistants to investigate plastic bag bans across the globe.

2019: The ACU (Association of Commonwealth Universities) Blue Charter Fellowship - part of the Commonwealth Marine Plastics Research and Innovation Framework (to Biswick and Gabbott). This has funded Dr Timothy Biswick to undertake fieldwork to collect, quantify and analyse the type and abundance  of microplastic in and around Lake Malawi, and for him to visit Leicester for up to 6 months to work on this project.

2018: International Development Fund HEFCE project (to Gabbott, Forchtner, Williams, Ogot and Chiotha): The scale and impact of plastic pollution in East Africa: data informed solutions. This funded the Leicester Plastics team (Gabbott, Forchtner, Williams, Heintz) to hold a Workshop event in Nairobi and to initiate a consortium of academics from both science and social science (from Kenya, Malawi and UK) to develop a research program to investigate the scale and impacts of plastic pollution within a socio-ecological framework.

2018: Funded by Environment Agency, Seven Trent Water and Leicester City Council: Plastics, water quality and wildlife: the river monster project (to Gabbott). This funded a project to survey and monitor litter in a heavily polluted tributary of the River Soar – the Willow Brook. Optimum survey design for capturing fluctuations in litter type and abundance linked with flow rate data (and weather) was a primary goal. Analytical and modelling techniques were also developed and novel statistical techniques applied to reveal patterns in litter presence and behaviour.

Research equipment:

2018: £188,000 (to Boom and Gabbott) to purchase a state-of the Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR)

2017: £1.1M (to Gabbott, Smith and Patel) to purchase two environmental scanning electron microscopes

Recent book chapters / reports

Zalasiewicz, Jan & Gabbott, Sarah & Waters, Colin. 2019. Plastic Waste: How Plastics Have Become Part of the Earth's Geological Cycle. In WASTE (second edition) A handbook for management. Ed. Trevor Letcher. Academic Press.

Gabbott, S.E., Key, S., Russell, C., Yohan, Y. Zalasiewicz, J. 2019 in press. The Geography and Geology of Plastics: environmental distribution and Fate. Plastic Waste and Recycling: Environmental Impact, Societal Issues and the Circular Economy. Elsiever.

Gabbott, S.E. Powell, D.M., Embery, J. 2019. Litter in the Willow Brook, Leicester: quantification of abundance, type, flux and stranding behaviour. A report of a 6 month project funded by Seven Trent Water and Leicester City Council (to Gabbott) on litter and plastic pollution in Leicester City.

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