Substantial quantities of tyre particles contaminating UK rivers

Vehicle tyre particles could be a significant, and largely unrecorded, source of microplastics in the marine environment, a UK government-funded study has uncovered.


Led by the University of Plymouth, the study found that around 100 million m² of the UK’s river network – and more than 50 million m² of estuarine and coastal waters – could be at risk of contamination by tyre particles.

The researchers identified how these particles can be transported directly to the ocean through the atmosphere, or carried by rainwater into rivers and sewers, where they can pass through the water treatment process.

They also highlight some of the optimal places for intervention, finding, for example, that fitting filters to washing machines could be less effective than changing fabric designs to reduce fibre loss.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said that the study will improve scientific understanding of how tiny particles from tyres, and synthetic fibres from clothing and maritime gear, also enter the ocean.

“Scientists have long suspected that tyre debris is posing a hidden threat to the marine environment,” said professor Richard Thompson OBE, who oversaw Defra’s first research project on microplastics a decade ago.

“However, there have been few studies measuring abundance in aquatic environments. Now we have a clearer indication on quantities we need to gain a better understanding on transport in the environment and the potential impacts on marine life.”

This project will be used to guide future research already underway on marine plastic pollution and the impact of human activities on the marine environment, according to Defra.

This includes the government's 5p plastic bag charge – which has led to 15 billion fewer bags distributed – and plans to end the sale of plastic straws and stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds later this year.

“What this study also does is provide further evidence of the complex problems posed by microplastic pollution,” professor Thompson continued. “We have looked at three pathways and shown that all of them are substantive pathways to the environment. 

“As we work to understand their potential distribution and impacts it is important to also work together with industry and policy makers to identify potential solutions which may include changes in behaviour, changes in product design and waste management.”


Image credit: iStock


Chris Seekings is a reporter for TRANSFORM

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