Marine Microplastics Survey

Photographer: Mike Waddington


In 2022 Project Baseline UK will team up with Chester University to support a marine microplastic survey project to quantify microplastics in UK and Irish coastal sediments. Volunteer divers will collect seabed sediment and sea water samples. University researchers will analyse the samples and identify any microplastics.

Project Baseline UK is recruiting divers willing to collect marine sediments from their dives. These sediment samples will be analysed for the presence and quantity of microplastic particles.

UK and Ireland divers can sign up here.

Photographer: Martin Maple

What are microplastics and why are they important? 

Microplastics are small particles of plastic that are one to five millimetres long. Primary source microplastics are micro by design, for example microbeads that are added to body washes, toothpastes and other products to give them extra scrubbing power. Plastic resin pellets, sometimes called nurdles, that are used in the manufacture of plastic products are also intentionally small.

Secondary source microplastics are fragmented particles of plastic resulting from the weathering of larger plastic products that are exposed to sunlight, temperature, and humidity, over time. Ocean waves can also break-up larger plastics by repeatedly washing over them and grinding them into the sand.

Microplastics are thought to be present in all the seas around the world. Ocean currents and circulation patterns move microplastics around like confetti. Scientists have only recently begun looking for microplastic hot spots in the oceans by determining where larger plastics enter the water and creating computer models to predict where the broken-down fragments end up.

It is estimated that about eight million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean each year, but only one percent is found floating at the surface in visible form. This suggests that most plastics in the ocean are likely to be microplastics suspended in the water or buried in sediments—yet scientists are only beginning to understand where they might be, not to mention their potential impacts on ocean life, ecosystems, and human health.

Many people have seen photos that show the impacts larger plastics can have on marine life, whether it’s a sea turtle snarled in a plastic six-pack ring or a seal entangled in plastic fishing gear. While the impacts of larger plastics are well understood, far less is known about the health impacts associated with microplastics.

Marine organisms at the bottom of the food web such as plankton and fish larvae are known to consume microplastics, and filter-feeding animals which humans eat, such as scallops and mussels, ingest the particles as they filter sea water.

Plastics may present a risk to both marine animals and humans since they can contain toxic chemicals like phthalates, bisphenol A and others used in the manufacturing process.  These additives change the properties of plastic items, for example phthalates are plasticisers that make hard plastics softer. Microplastics can also become toxic by adsorbing chemicals and bacteria from the environment and moving them from one location to another.

Project aims

  • To identify areas with higher concentrations of microplastics around the UK and Ireland coastlines and to look at the potential causes of this
  • To collect different samples from different regions
  • To collect data on the amount of microplastics in the samples
  • To research potential causes for differences or relationships within the data
  • To gain an understanding of abundance and distribution of microplastics around the coastlines and broader areas.
Sample map from 2021 project (Courtesy of Katie Yeomans / Chester Universitry)