University of Plymouth-led study notes that microplastics shed from vehicle tyres are putting millions of square metres of UK waters at risk of contamination.
Vehicle tyres have been confirmed as a leading source of microplastic pollution in the ocean and rivers, according to scientists.
Government-funded research published today warns that roughly 100 million square metres of the UK's river network, and more than 50 million square metres of estuarine and coastal waters, could be contaminated by tiny plastic particles shed from tyres.
Plastic particles from tyres are a "significant and previously largely unrecorded" source of marine microplastics, according to the researchers, who warn pollution from tyres is being transported into waterways by air or by rainwater into sewers and rivers.
"Scientists have long suspected that tyre debris is posing a hidden threat to the marine environment. However, there have been few studies measuring abundance in aquatic environments," said lead author, and head of the International Marine Litter Research, Professor Richard Thompson. "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."
Prior research has revealed that microplastics, or plastic particles less than 5mm long, are a serious threat to marine ecosystems, including seabirds, turtles, fish and whales. They are also ingested by humans when they consume fish and shellfish.
Professor Thompson said today that his team would now work with industry and policy makers to identify solutions that could spur changes in behaviour, product design, and waste management to curb microplastics' damage to the environment. Previous microplastic research from his team at the University of Plymouth resulted in the UK's ban on microbeads in personal care products in 2018.
However, Thompson noted that scientists still had a lot more to learn about microplastic pollution from tyres. "There are still many unknowns, and compared to other forms of microplastics we know relatively little about tyre wear particles," he said. "So it is important to continue to take steps to reduce emissions of better understood sources like fibres from textiles and the fragmentation of larger items."
The study, which was funded by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, also contains new information about how tiny particles from synthetic fibres from clothing and marine gear are reaching the world's ocean.
Among a series of recommendations to policymakers, it argues that fabric design changes should be prioritised over filters for washing machines, pointing to a recent study that showed that normal wear and tear from clothes is as large a source of pollution as laundering.
Environment minister Rebecca Pow said today's findings would help the government identify ways to reduce marine pollution.
"Reducing plastic pollution in the ocean is one of the greatest environmental challenges that we face," she said. "This study will help us face that challenge by identifying areas for future research, such as changes to roadside drainage and textile design. The UK is at the forefront of a global fight against the scourge of plastics. In addition to the pioneering ban on microbeads and the 5p plastic bag charge, plans are also in place to end the sale of plastic straws, stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds."
Today's study was led by the University of Plymouth and also involved researchers from Newcastle University, King's College London, and Eunomia Research & Consulting Limited.
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