Saving our planet from a sea of plastic

NERC science is delivering solutions to one of the world's biggest environmental challenges: plastic waste. Research we funded enabled the 2018 ban that prevents billions of microbeads from entering our oceans.

Why it matters

Plastic has a role in almost every aspect of our lives, but there is mounting concern over its environmental impact. Discarded plastics contaminate vital ecosystems and threaten the food chains we rely on. An estimated eight million tonnes of plastic waste - enough to fill eight Wembley Stadiums - enters the world's oceans each year. Pieces under 5mm long (called 'microplastics') are of particular concern.

NERC's impact in numbers


fewer microbeads enter our oceans each year

fewer plastic bags used

12 million
UK viewers informed about the dangers of plastic waste by Blue Planet II

What we did

Since the mid-2000s, NERC science has examined the extent and effects of plastic pollution throughout the environment, uncovering its presence everywhere from UK river basins and soils, to remote oceans and the Antarctic landmass. NERC's support for world-class science, research infrastructure, innovation and training has revealed the hazard to both wildlife and people from long-lasting plastic pollution and helped to deliver practical solutions to the problem.

For example, NERC scientists:

  • Were the first to predict that microplastics could be widespread in the marine food chain and provide evidence that this is the case.
  • Provided the first-ever evidence of microplastics in UK freshwater environments in research published by NERC's Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.
  • Delivered a co-funded study revealing deep-sea creatures were ingesting microfibres.
Plastic floating on the ocean

Impacts and benefits

  • 4,000 fewer tonnes/year of plastic enters the oceans thanks to the 2018 UK ban on plastic microbeads in certain products. This ban enacted Environmental Audit Committee recommendations informed by NERC scientists. NERC research also supported policy changes in the US and Canada, and helped the UN frame its policy advice on plastic pollution.

  • Retailers reduce plastic bag use by 86% following introduction of the 5p 'plastic bag tax' across the UK between 2011 and 2015. The policy introduced in England specifically referenced NERC research.

  • Surging awareness of plastic pollution as a direct result of input by NERC-funded scientists into the final episode of Blue Planet II, which helped trigger global debate and a shift in attitudes. The 'Blue Planet effect' has been cited in many actions by government and businesses. More than a quarter of a billion people worldwide watched the series.

Plastic on a tropical beach

Investing for the future

On behalf of UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), NERC and Innovate UK lead a coalition that aims to make the UK a leader in sustainable plastic packaging and in reducing its environmental impact. The government has announced up to £60 million of funding for this initiative. This is in addition to the £20 million Plastics Research & Innovation Fund (PRIF) aiming to explore new ideas that can change UK plastics manufacturing and consumption patterns.

NERC also leads a collaboration between UKRI and think tank Policy Connect to engage parliamentarians and industry with research to guide UK solutions for managing its waste plastic and reducing how much enters our environment.

Contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals

12: Responsible consumption and production; 14: Life below water; 17: Partnerships for the goals

Delivering world-class science in a world-class way

NERC is committed to ensuring that we conduct our science in a sustainable manner; from how we operate our buildings, ships and aircraft to how we award research grants and work with the higher education sector. We drive sustainability improvements across our investment portfolio through our Responsibility Framework.

Some of the scientists behind the success

Our investment in research and training delivers the skills and expertise necessary to address complex social, economic and environmental challenges. The many NERC-supported scientists who have made key contributions in this area include:

Hand full of plastic particlesProfessors Tamara Galloway, Richard Thompson OBE and Dr Penelope Lindeque:
Tamara, Richard and Penelope are world-renowned authorities on marine pollution. Working with colleagues, they were the first to predict that microplastics could be widespread in the marine food chain and provide proof of it. They gave evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee in 2016 and were part of the team that won the 2018 NERC Impact Awards.

TV screenDr Lucy Quinn:
As a specialist on the marine environment working for NERC's British Antarctic Survey, Lucy gave a compelling interview to Blue Planet II about her work. This was a key part of the programme's message about the harmful impacts of plastic waste on wildlife.

Loose chippings road signDr Chris Sherrington:
After securing his NERC-funded PhD, Chris joined consultants Eunomia and is now an acknowledged authority on topics such as microplastics produced by tyre wear. He has provided important input to the European Strategy for Plastics, and also gave evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee.

Uncovering the impact of microplastics in the ocean

Professor Tamara Galloway, with Professor Brendan Godley, Dr Ceri Lewis and Dr Matt Cole (University of Exeter), Professor Richard Thompson OBE and Professor Steven Rowland (University of Plymouth) and Dr Penelope Lindeque (Plymouth Marine Laboratory), won the NERC 2018 Impact Award for societal and overall impact.

Award-winning microplastics researchers

The award-winning microplastics researchers

Evidence sources for this case study are listed in the PDF version, available in the downloads section.