- This project challenges assumptions of natural textile fibre degradability in the environment, and the associated promotion of these fibres as green alternatives to their plastic analogues.
- Employing interdisciplinary field and laboratory methodologies, this project will equip the successful applicant with a variety of environmental science research skills to understand society’s historic environmental footprint from one of the world’s largest industries, and link this to other human impacts in lakes and reservoirs (e.g. eutrophication, climate change).
- Project outcomes aim to inform policy developments in the environmental sector and textiles industry, and inform public behaviour.
Microplastic fibres (MFs) are the most abundant microplastic (MP) in the environment (Le Guen et al. 2019). Released from the production, day-to-day wear and washing of garments, MFs have been preserved in freshwater sediments since the mid-twentieth century. However, an emerging field of environmental science is reporting a dominance of natural fibres (NFs) of cellulosic (e.g. cotton) and animal (e.g. wool) origin in the environment globally (Stanton et al. 2019). NFs are introduced to the environment via the same mechanisms as MFs and present the same physical and chemical risks. However, their environmental history and impacts have not yet been quantified, despite their use and emission long pre-dating MF’s relatively recent history of production and pollution.
Although NFs are frequently marketed as ‘green’ and ‘biodegradable’ alternatives to plastic-fibred garments, they undergo extensive processing and chemical treatment to introduce colour and change their physical properties. These processes influence the degradability of natural textile fibres, including the mercerisation of cotton, which changes the structure of the cellulose polymer in the cotton plant (cellulose I) to the most thermodynamically stable form of cellulose (cellulose II) in the cotton used for most textiles.
There is a pressing need to understand the environmental prevalence, persistence, and impact of textile fibres of all types, not just plastic, to inform best practice for this industry and its consumers. This PhD will explore the presence and prevalence of textile fibres of all types in UK aquatic sediment records across catchments with varying land-uses and link that to other sedimentary proxies of environmental change and pollution (such as eutrophication and climate change). This will include lake and reservoir sites with known histories of wastewater treatment, textile manufacturing, and river-connectivity. It will inform discourses of sustainable fashion, and consider the timescales over which plastic and natural textile fibres, as one of the most globally abundant anthropogenic particles, are able to act as indicators of anthropogenic activity. Textile fibre profiles will be related to other biological and physical proxies of environmental change in lakes and reservoirs (e.g., diatoms).
At Wakehurst (https://www.kew.org/wakehurst), Kew can offer a biodiverse 535-acre site which forms a microcosm of habitats across the UK. This research will take advantage of this unique location, of woodlands, grassland and wetlands which includes Ardingly Reservoir to act as a control (background) site, as the only source of MFs and NFs is from the atmosphere.
Figure 1: Loch Leven (A) is a Scottish loch with a detailed history of textile fibre sources, and a potential site for this PhD. This figure shows changes in textile fibre sources since 1854, including a woollen mill (blue ovals, (B-E)), a linen mill (purple oval, (C,D)), historic wastewater treatment (orange oval, (C,D)), and contemporary wastewater treatment (pink ovals, (A, E)) at the inflows to Loch Leven. This PhD will explore whether changes in textile fibres, and their associated proxies, preserved in lake sediment sequences (F) reflect historic changes in textile industries and wastewater management at sites across the UK.
- Climate and Environmental Sustainability
- Organisms and Ecosystems
Textile fibres, together with other proxies of environmental change (e.g. diatoms, other algae, sedimentary physical properties), will be quantified in sediment cores taken from lakes in northern England, Sussex and Scotland. Deployment of automatic water samplers at some sites will assess the distribution and movement of fibres, sedimenting particles and algal crops throughout the water column. Multiple cores will be collected from each site to ensure sufficient sediment for 210Pb dating as well as fibre extraction and other proxies.
This PhD will refine low/no chemical methodologies for fibre extraction from sediments that have been developed by the supervisory team (as well as existing methods for diatom analysis). Fibre identification will use polarised light and scanning electron microscopy and FTIR spectroscopy, among other analytical techniques as appropriate (e.g. light microscopy for identification of diatoms and other algae). RBG Kew are expert in landscape metadata collation and analysis which can be applied to all catchments, while RBG Wakehurst has a well mapped water table, and includes Ardingly Reservoir, which is managed by the local water authority.
Training and skills
Students will be awarded CENTA2 Training Credits (CTCs) for participation in CENTA2-provided and ‘free choice’ external training. One CTC equates to 1⁄2 day session and students must accrue 100 CTCs across the three years of their PhD.
This PhD will provide comprehensive experience of multiple field, laboratory, and analytical skills. Collection of aquatic sediment cores will be complemented by training in standard paleolimnological methodologies for diatom analysis, sediment processing and dating (as well as other potential proxies). Contemporary lake monitoring skills will be gained through the monitoring of textile fibres and other sedimenting particles through the lake water column (through sediment trapping). Analytical techniques will be taught through optical microscopy (polarised light for fibres, phase contrast for diatoms), scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and infrared micro-spectroscopy (FTIR) methods. Training in environmental statistics and science communication will also be provided, equipping the student with analytical and communication skills that are relevant beyond the PhD’s focus. Additional training will also be provided by RBG Kew as needed and to suit the successful applicant’s needs and interests.
Partners and collaboration
Kew Science at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew currently supervises 83 PhD students and engages 30 interns every year to support research aims. It has a mature mentoring and support system for new PhD students who can learn work transferrable skills during delivery of an academic program. RBG Wakehurst is currently working closely with other agencies focussing on data capture of other complimentary metadata on the value of biodiverse landscapes within the Wakehurst boundary including carbon capture, pollination, gas flux and aerial spatial data, and includes Ardingly Reservoir which will act as control site for MPs and NFs. This project would expand the spectrum of relevant data for RBG Wakehurst and enhance ongoing projects there and at RBG Kew.
Further details on how to contact the supervisor for this project and how to apply for this project can be found here:
To apply to this project:
- You must include a CENTA studentship application form, downloadable from: CENTA Studentship Application Form 2024.
- You must include a CV with the names of at least two referees (preferably three) who can comment on your academic abilities.
- Please submit your application and complete the host institution application process via: https://www.lboro.ac.uk/study/postgraduate/apply/research-applications/ The CENTA application form 2024 and CV can be uploaded at Section 10 “Supporting Documents” of the online portal. Under Section 4 “Programme Selection” the proposed study centre is Central England NERC Training Alliance. Please quote CENTA 2024-LU3 when completing the application form.
- For further enquiries about the application process, please contact the School of Social Sciences & Humanities ([email protected]).
Applications must be submitted by 23:59 GMT on Wednesday 10th January 2024.
Year 1 will focus on training in core practical skills for this PhD (sampling, sample processing, sample analysis). Training will focus on analytical methods (optical microscopy, polarised light microscopy, FTIR spectroscopy) for fibre and diatom identification, and the methods used to isolate natural fibres from aquatic sediments using existing sediment archives. Year 1 will also be used to identify sample locations, seek necessary permissions, and complete required health and safety training and research risk assessments. Sediment core collection and analysis of new material will begin at the end of year 1. Sediment traps will also be deployed at the end of year 1.
Year 2 will complete sediment core collection and use methods refined in year 1 to isolate textile fibres from sample material and complete additional sediment analysis (e.g. 210Pb dating, physical sedimentary analysis, diatom analysis). The majority of the quantification of textile fibres and diatoms from sediment cores will take place in year 2. Training in statistical techniques will also be completed in year 2. Sediment traps will be retrieved throughout year two, and samples processed and analysed as they are collected.
Year 3 will see the completion of the analysis of environmental samples, and the analysis and interpretation of the data generated from the collated proxy datasets. Science communication training in year 3 will ensure that the findings of this research are disseminated across relevant audiences (academic, public, industry, government).
Ladewig, S.M., Bao, S. and Chow, A.T., 2015. Natural fibers: a missing link to chemical pollution dispersion in aquatic environments. Environmental Science and Technology, 49, 12609-12610.
Le Guen, C., Suaria, G., Sherley, R.B., Ryan, P.G., Aliani, S., Boehme, L. and Brierley, A.S., 2020. Microplastic study reveals the presence of natural and synthetic fibres in the diet of King Penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) foraging from South Georgia. Environment International, 134, 105303.
Smol, J.P. (2008) Pollution of Lakes and Rivers: A Paleoenvironmental Perspective, 2nd edition, Blackwell, Oxford.
Stanton, T., Johnson, M., Nathanail, P., MacNaughtan, W. and Gomes, R. (2019). Freshwater and airborne textile fibre populations are dominated by ‘natural’, not microplastic, fibres. Science of The Total Environment, 666, 377-389.
ThermoFisher. 2022. Identification of Microplastics using the Nicolet RaptIR FTIR Microscope. Application Note.