Microplastics Research at the NOC


Sampling locations (Click to enlarge)

Mission Statement

To understand the extent and implications of microplastic pollution on the health of marine ecosystems.


The risk posed by plastics to the marine environment and humans depends on the exposure to these contaminants and harm they cause. Our group carries out cutting-edge research to assess the distribution and transport of plastics to and within the ocean to better understand plastic fate and ecosystem exposure.

This research includes, for example:

  • Assessing inputs of plastics to the oceans from land via rivers and estuaries
  • Downward particle flux to the deep sea
  • Quantifying plastics transport and accumulation across the deep seafloor
  • Identification and classification of litter in biodiversity hotspots
  • Organism interactions and ingestion

By measuring the distribution and interactions of plastics at the ocean surface, throughout the water column and in the deep sea sediment, and how this changes over time, we aim to gain a better understanding of the fate and impacts of plastics in marine systems. Such information can be used to assess and predict current and future trends in plastic distribution and the likely environmental implications, informing future regulations surrounding waste management, manufacturing processes and environmental monitoring.



NOC’s Microplastics LaboratoryOptimising and Enhancing the Integrated Atlantic Ocean Observing Systems (April 2015 – June 2019).

AtlantOS is a €20M EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation project that aimed to optimise and enhance the Integrated Atlantic Ocean Observing Systems. As a part of AtlantOS (Task 3.2 OceanSITES Biogeochemistry) NOC researchers used the capabilities and facilities of the ocean observing systems (e.g. fixed-point observatories), in the Atlantic Ocean to quantify and characterise the presence, distribution and fate of microplastic pollution in the open ocean.

Visit AtlantOS website: https://www.atlantos-h2020.eu/project-information/work-packages/wp3

CLASS - Climate Linked Atlantic Sector Science (April 2018 to August 2023).

CLASS is a £22M NERC National Capability project, which includes long-term (decadal) assessment of the impacts of human-induced change on ocean conditions and important deep-sea ecosystems in the North Atlantic. Specific activities include tracking of deep-sea microplastics transport pathways using ocean current measurements and sampling, mapping of litter in submarine canyons using deep-sea robots, and ocean-scale modelling to track particulate fluxes.

Visit project website: https://projects.noc.ac.uk/class

“Developing a Global Listening Network for Turbidity Currents and Seafloor Processes”

This is a £800k NERC research project focused on developing novel technology to monitor particulate fluxes along two submarine canyons located directly offshore from some of the World’s biggest rivers: Congo Canyon (West Africa) and Gaoping Canyon (Taiwan). The project includes sampling of the seafloor and water column to determine the role that powerful submarine avalanches (turbidity currents) play on dispersing or concentrating microplastics within the deep sea.

NOC Staff working on Microplastic Research:

Professor Richard Lampitt

Team leader. Biogeochemist with particular expertise in transport and processing of particulate material.

Dr Mike Clare

Process-based sedimentologist focused on quantifying microplastic transport processes and pathways from source to sink using novel monitoring techniques and analysis of seafloor deposits.

Dr Jen Durden

Research topics: spatial and temporal variation in deep-sea communities, abyssal invertebrates, metabolic theory of ecology, carbon flow in food webs, environmental policy related to deep-sea mining and plastic in the ocean, underwater photography

Dr Claire Evans

Microbiologist with interest in the ways in which microplastic contamination may affect the microbiota of seas and the ocean.

Alice Horton

Anthropogenic Contaminants Scientist with an expertise in aquatic microplastic pollution which includes sampling, analysis and ecotoxicological testing.

Dr Dan Mayor

Biological oceanographer with expertise in plankton ecology and the factors with affect ecosystem structure and function.

Dr Katsia Pabortsava

Post-Doctoral research scientist with major expertise in the collection and analysis of microplastics.

Sampling Methods

The sampling that we carry out is diverse and may include manual sampling of onshore settings, from small coastal vessels to large ocean-going research ships, and from remote equipment deployed in the ocean interior. Research expeditions give us the unparalleled capability to collect samples from otherwise inaccessible places within the open ocean.

We use various types of equipment to collect samples for analysis of plastics from the different compartments of the ocean and on different time scales, for example:

  • Stand alone in situ pumps (SAPs) instantaneously capture plastic particles from the water column by filtering large volumes of seawater (> 1000 L) through a fine mesh. This sampling method produces depth profiles of plastics throughout the water column.
  • Sediment traps are similar to rain gauges and collect marine particles including plastics that sink from the ocean surface to depth. These devices are moored in the abyss (3000 m) for approximately one year to collect sinking particles in a continuous manner. They allow us to measure directly temporal changes (days to years) in magnitude and characteristics of plastics that sink to the deep ocean.
  • Sediment cores are cylindrical tubes that are pushed into the seafloor to collect the sediment, preserving its layered structure. By examining the different layers of the core, we can assess the accumulation of plastics the ocean floor, understand the processes that resulted in their accumulation, and assess the efficiency of their burial. We prefer use sampling tools that preserve the seawater-seabed interface, which also allows us to collect bottom-dwelling organisms to assess any interactions with plastics.
  • Video footage provides data on the abundance and spatial variation in large plastic litter at the seafloor.
  • Surface trawls utilise fine nets that can be used to collect small surface organisms such as zooplankton, for the analysis of ingested plastics.

Analytical Methods

Plastics are made of different polymer types and we use advanced tools to detect, identify and characterise them in terms of their composition, size and shape. Our ‘microplastics analyser’ is a state-of-the-art Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) Imaging system which couples the capabilities of a traditional microscope with that of infrared spectrometer. In essence it produces both visible and chemical image of particles, from which their individual plastic types can be distinguished and the dimensions measured. Our FTIR can detect and identify plastic particles as small as three microns in diameter.


Professor Richard Lampitt talks about the microplastics research

Microplastics research at the NOC