Announcement of Opportunity: Scoping group for Earth system plastics

Closing date: 16:00 on 4 April 2018

NERC invites applications to join a scoping group that will develop the science case for a potential large strategic research programme on Earth system plastics.

This is one of three potential strategic programme areas (SPAs) which have emerged from the ideas process for strategic research. We do not expect to be able to fund all three potential SPAs, and any potential SPA must meet NERC's criteria for a strategic programme, so it is possible that none of them will result in funded programmes.

Earth system plastics addresses the burgeoning quantity of plastics on our planet, with currently over eight billion tonnes in the Earth system and 40 billion tonnes projected by 2050[1]. Despite these large quantities, and the recent high-profile political attention given to reducing plastic waste in the UK's 25-year environment plan, the pathways, transformations and ultimate fate of these plastics in the environment are poorly understood.

Plastics reaching the oceans amount to around 10 million tonnes a year, but this is dwarfed by the amount of plastics at or near the Earth surface (around three billion tonnes) and locked away in landfills (around five billion tonnes). As these deposits are released, the flux of plastics to surface waters, coastlines and oceans is amplified with significant environmental, social and economic costs. The aim of this Earth system plastics SPA is to address the gaps in our knowledge of how plastic behaves in relation to all aspects of the Earth's natural environment so that workable interventions can be developed.

The overarching aim is to provide an understanding of the pathways and fate of plastics in the environment.

Potential research questions include:

  1. What is the nature and scale of plastic sources to the Earth system?

  2. What are the main pathways of plastics across the Earth system? What are the potential stocks and flows of plastic between terrestrial, freshwater and marine systems? What are the key physical, chemical and ecological mechanisms that control fate, behaviour, concentration, decomposition, distribution, and transport over various time scales?

  3. Across their entire life-cycle, how are different types of plastics modified physically, chemically and biologically? What environmental processes promote their degradation or fragmentation? At what point, if any, do plastics no longer interact with the environment and cease to present a risk to the biosphere?

  4. At which points in the cycle might interventions be effective, and which interventions are most appropriate? How can science and industry collaborate to deliver some of these interventions? What is the environmental impact of plastic alternatives?

The SPA will support research on pathways and fate of a range of plastic types, shapes and sizes to gain a comprehensive picture of the behaviour of plastics in the environment to ensure that effective interventions are developed.

Applications are invited from individuals wishing to join the scoping group that will develop the science case for consideration by NERC.

Scoping group meeting

Professor Daniel Parsons from the University of Hull has agreed to chair the scoping group. Members will be selected by NERC via an open call for self-nomination. It is anticipated that the scoping group will be made up of around six to eight individuals and will have an appropriate scientific balance. Members of the scoping group are expected to act as representatives of their scientific disciplines, and to act in the interests of the scientific community as a whole, rather than representing personal or institutional interests.

The composition of the group will be decided by NERC with input from the Chair of the scoping group and a representative of NERC's Strategic Programme Advisory Group (SPAG). NERC reserves the right to appoint members to the scoping group who haven't applied to achieve the balance of representation required.

The scoping group will convene for a two-day meeting (lunchtime to lunchtime) which all members must attend. The group will be tasked with producing a science case by the end of June 2018. This meeting will take place on 24-25 May at a venue in the London area. By applying to join this scoping group you are confirming your availability to attend the meeting.

If the proposed research programme is approved, members of the scoping group will be able to apply for funding, subject to normal NERC eligibility rules.


Applicants should submit their application via the online form by 16:00 4 April 2018. Successful applicants will be informed of the outcome by 17 April 2018.

NERC will cover all reasonable travel and subsistence associated with attending the meeting, in line with NERC policy.

To register for this event, please complete the online registration form.


Michelle Truman

  1. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made - R Geyer et al, Science Advances (2017).