- Influencing global change around plastic pollution
- Coined the term ‘microplastics’ in landmark paper
- Research led to UK ban on microbeads
- Awarded OBE for over 20 years of service to marine science
- Director of the Marine Institute, University of Plymouth
- Our founder of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit
Saving our seas from plastic
Professor Richard Thompson OBE
1. Who are you? And what is your passion?
I have always had an interest in things to do with water. From salt marshes, to coral reefs and mudflats, I'm passionate about the way different species interact in a community. How predators, and their prey, move, feed and reproduce.
We're putting increasing pressure on our oceans as a source of resources, whether that's fish for protein to eat, or minerals extracted from the seabed.
Historically, we've also seen the oceans as a place to dispose of our waste, and this has become a major topic of work for me.
In 2004, we were the first to describe microplastics in the ocean and we've been working ever since on where those microplastics are found, and what the consequences are for wildlife.
During my PhD, I ran shoreline experiments looking at the interactions between creatures living on the shore. Almost every day, rubbish accumulated in those experiments – rubbish I had to clear to measure the things of interest. Most of this was plastic. I asked, 'where was it coming from?'
While volunteering in Marine Conservation Society beach cleans, I noticed we were walking over millions of smaller pieces of plastic, but nobody was paying any attention to them. Instead, attention was mainly focused on removing large items, such as fishing nets and tyres.
When I began teaching, I set my students a challenge: 'forget about the big stuff, go find me the smallest bits of plastic on the beach.' The very first sample contained unusual looking brightly coloured pieces, smaller than a grain of sand – pieces we went on to confirm were plastics.
My mission is to further our understanding of the impacts of litter on the environment and society, and perhaps even more importantly to identify the solutions and pathways necessary to achieve them.
2. What does the marine plastic problem look like in 2019? How does Plymouth's research lead the way?
It's very clear plastics contaminate the surface of our planet. Virtually everywhere you look, you find plastic debris.It's difficult to walk on a shoreline without finding large items of plastic. We have also shown that microplastics are abundant in the deep sea, in remote places such as the Arctic. They are also present in marine organisms including some commercially important species.
We have been asking, 'what are the impacts on those organisms?' 'What are the impacts on marine communities?'
Increasingly, we are focusing on research relating to solutions. With programmes like Blue Planet, the topic is now very much in the public domain. Policymakers, industry and the public are for the first time all agreed there is a problem.
Our research has been important in helping ring the alarm bell about the impacts of plastic. We've helped to bring it to a level of attention where there is now a pressure for change.
3. What is a fear you’d like to conquer?
The answer to the plastic problem isn't to ban plastic. It’s not the plastic itself that's the problem. It’s the way we've chosen to use it – from the design stage right through to what happens at the end of a product's life cycle.
It’s clear that plastics bring many societal benefits – they have the potential to help reduce our footprint on the planet. But nearly all of those benefits could be achieved without the need for plastics to escape to the environment as litter.
We need to learn to use plastic responsibly and fundamentally change the way we design and dispose plastics in society.
I can see a push to move towards a plastic free aisle in the supermarket. To ban plastics from our lives, to have a plastic free planet.
My fear is if we go down that route we're actually denying future generations, and the planet as well, the potential benefits plastic could bring.
The key thing as we clamber for change is to ensure we reach decisions that are going to be better for the environment. Not just different, but better.
4. How do you respond when faced with a problem?
Working in scientific environment, it is about challenging each other to uncover the truth. This can take time. The growth of our microplastics research was initially slow.
It was a number of years before we secured the first small amount of funding. We persevered and with our first funding from the Leverhulme Trust gathered enough data for our first paper – Lost at sea: Where does all the plastic go? – in Science journal in 2004. Everything accelerated from there.
At the time, there was one scientific paper on microplastics, and that was ours. Last year, there were over 300 papers published globally using the word 'microplastic'.
I was quite nervous when we presented our pioneering research to policymakers and scientists from around the world at the first meeting on microplastics in 2008. They had to decide on the balance of the evidence we had so far, only a few papers – mostly ours – what was the next step?
5. What do you know of that you believe could really change our world for the better?
With most of the challenges I'm working with in the environment, there is a direct link between the thing we humans want and damage to the environment.
You want to take fish out of the sea to eat them, it directly means there are less fish. You want to live or take a holiday on the coastline, those properties, directly and proportionately, take away natural habitat.
In these examples, it's impossible to have the thing that humans want without some degradation.
But with plastic, we could have the benefits without the environmental degradation. The two are not compulsorily linked in the same way as many other challenges.
So it's absolutely not about banning plastics, it's about using them more responsibly.
This gives me hope that this is an environmental challenge that is very much in our grasp to fix, because it's about using something differently, rather than not doing using it.
6. What do you want the world to look like in 10 years?
We need to find smarter ways to use our plastics. At the moment, the solution isn't just in the hands of the consumer. The challenge is stimulating changes in design and people's behaviour, while ensuring the environmental science checks and balances actually makes things better, without any unintended consequences.
For example, the research we did with microbeads, where we showed a single container of cosmetics could contain nearly 3 million microplastic particles, that work informed the ban of microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products in the UK in 2018.
We're now seeing legislation in other countries too. But it's 50 years since the patent was filed on the use of small bits of plastic in cosmetics. Did nobody in the industry ever ask the question, 'where are all these pieces going?'
Looking forward, more thorough extended producer responsibility could really help to see off some of the problems before they arise.
7. If you have the chance to share one message to the whole world, what would it be?
We all need to be cautious about the amount of plastic we use, particularly the single use plastics.
Wherever possible, choose products and packaging that are compatible with end-of-life disposal – ideally by recycling, so that carbon in the plastic can move around in a more circular way – an old bottle becoming a new one. And most of all, don't drop litter.
Plunge deeper into Richard's vital research
The International Marine Litter Research Unit's mission is to further our understanding of the impacts of litter on the environment and society, and to identify solutions and pathways to achieve them.
The unit's pioneering expertise has guided industry, informed educational and artistic initiatives that raise awareness, and has provided evidence for government agencies and international organisations such as the United Nations.