Project highlights

  • This project addresses the critical environmental concern of textile pollution, emphasizing the significance of natural fibers in freshwater environments. 
  • Employing an interdisciplinary research approach, it investigates the behavior and impacts of natural textile fibers through environmental science, biofilm studies, and ecological analysis. 
  • Project outcomes aim to inform policy development on water management and environmental monitoring, potentially enhancing strategies to mitigate natural fiber presence in freshwater ecosystems. 


Textile pollution, primarily linked to plastic fibers, poses a pressing environmental issue (Hazlehurst et al. 2023). In response, natural textile fibers like cotton have been championed as environmentally friendly alternatives. Recent research highlights that natural fibers, often overlooked, substantially dominate environmental surveys of textile fibers in freshwater (Stanton et al. 2019). Furthermore, early investigations suggest that natural fibers may potentially induce comparable or even greater ecotoxicological effects than plastic fibers (Détrée et al 2023). Yet, the full scope of natural fibers’ fate and their impacts in freshwater ecosystems remains inadequately understood. 

The role of riverbed sediments in serving as a repository for these natural fibers is expected, but their interactions with these fibers depend on a multitude of physical, biological, and chemical factors. This research project aims to investigate the complex interplay and feedback loops between riverbed dynamics and natural fibers in freshwater environments. The primary objective is to identify the key variables that influence the entrapment and resuspension of natural fibers within this critical ecological zone. Various types of natural fibers with differing characteristics will be considered and analysed in comparison to plastic fibers using advanced technology and innovative methods. 

Understanding the release rates and sources of natural fibers is vital for a comprehensive assessment of their environmental impact. The insights gained from this project have the potential to inform the development of new policies related to water management and environmental conservation, contributing to more effective strategies for monitoring and mitigating the presence of natural fibers in freshwater ecosystems.

Schematic figure to illustrate custom-built recirculating flume experimental system, comprising of 3 separate units each containing 3 flumes. Each flume is 1.98 m, long, 0.1m wide and 0.2 m deep.

Figure 1: Schematic figure to illustrate custom-built recirculating flume experimental system, comprising of 3 separate units each containing 3 flumes. Each flume is 1.98 m, long, 0.1m wide and 0.2 m deep.


University of Warwick


  • Organisms and Ecosystems


Project investigator

Sarah Cook ([email protected]) University of Warwick 


Gary Bending ([email protected]) University of Warwick 

Soroush Abolfathi ([email protected]) University of Warwick 

Thomas Stanton ([email protected]) Loughborough University 

How to apply


This project will conduct laboratory experiments simulating river and lake conditions to investigate the influence of biofilm colonization on the settling velocity and distribution of natural textile fibers, alongside the potential to investigate resuspension from bioturbation. It will also involve characterizing the biological communities within biofilms formed on various fiber types and comparing them to those found on natural substrates. To further enhance the real-world applicability of the experiments, the natural fibers will be inoculated with real river water. The research will explore how environmental parameters, including UV degradation, pH, and temperature, impact the behaviour of fibers associated with biofilms. To validate the laboratory findings, spatial sampling of textile fiber populations in rivers and lakes will be conducted.  

Training and skills

This research project provides comprehensive training in various environmental science disciplines, covering topics such as environmental river processes, molecular techniques, ecological analysis, and metagenomic sequencing. Participants will gain practical experience by conducting hands-on laboratory experiments that simulate river and lake conditions, allowing them to explore the effects of biofilm colonization on natural textile fibers. They will also have the opportunity to study biological communities within biofilms on different fiber types, using real river water for a more practical approach. Additionally, fieldwork includes spatial sampling of textile fiber populations in rivers and lakes.  

Further details

Further details on how to contact the supervisor for this project and how to apply for this project can be found here: 

For any enquiries related to this project please contact Sarah Cook ([email protected]) University of Warwick. 

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: Complete the online application form – selecting course code P-C1PB (Life Sciences PhD); from here you will be taken through to another screen where you can select your desired project. Please enter “NERC studentship” in the Finance section and add Nikki Glover, [email protected] as the scholarship contact. Please also complete the CENTA application form 2024 and submit via email to [email protected].  Please quote CENTA 2024-W18  when completing the application form. 

 Applications must be submitted by 23:59 GMT on Wednesday 10th January 2024. 

Possible timeline

Year 1

Year 1 will concentrate on setting up laboratory experiments simulating river and lake conditions. This encompasses equipment preparation, securing natural textile fiber samples, and launching biofilm colonization experiments, with initial data collection and analysis commencing. 

Year 2

Year 2, the project will progress to more advanced experimentation, investigating the influence of environmental parameters on fiber behaviour. Additionally, it will delve into characterizing biological communities within biofilms formed on various fiber types. 

Year 3

Year 3, the project’s focus will shift towards the analysis and interpretation of the accumulated data. The primary objective will be to synthesize findings and draw conclusions about the entrapment and resuspension of natural fibers in freshwater environments. 

Further reading

Cook, S., Price, O., King, A., Finnegan, C., van Egmond, R., Schäfer, H., Pearson, JM., Abolfathi, S., Bending, GD. Bedform characteristics and biofilm community development interact to modify hyporheic exchange. Sci Total Environ. 2020 Dec 20;749:141397. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.141397.  

Détrée, C., Labbé, C., Paul-Pont, I., Prado, E., El Rakwe, M., Thomas, L., Delorme, N., Le Goïc, N. and Huvet, A., 2023. On the horns of a dilemma: Evaluation of synthetic and natural textile microfibre effects on the physiology of the pacific oyster Crassostrea gigas. Environmental Pollution, 331, p.121861. 

Hazlehurst, A., Tiffin, L., Sumner, M. and Taylor, M., 2023. Quantification of microfibre release from textiles during domestic laundering. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 30(15), pp.43932-43949. doi: 

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. doi: