What are microplastics?
Microplastics are very small particles of plastic debris with a diameter of less than five millimetres.
In 2004, Richard Thompson OBE FRS, Professor of Marine Biology and Director of the University’s Marine Institute, was the first to describe their long term accumulation and coin the term 'microplastics' in his landmark paper, 'Lost at Sea: Where Is All the Plastic?'.
Ever since, Richard, who founded and heads our International Marine Litter Research Unit, has been working to establish where those microplastics are accumulating, what the potential consequences are for wildlife and to identify solutions to help stem the flow of plastics to the ocean.
Where do microplastics come from?
- Particles arising from the breakdown of larger items of plastic litter in the environment, such as plastic packaging and water bottles.
- Microfibres shed from textiles during use.
- Particles resulting from tyre abrasion.
- Tiny particles that have been manufactured for use in products such as cosmetics (sometimes called microbeads).
- Spillage of tiny particles of plastic that are the feedstock for the production of other plastic items.
While news articles often describe heavily contaminated locations. It’s now clear that plastic and microplastics contaminate shorelines worldwide.
Our work has so clearly shown, that microplastics are present in every sample of beach sand, whether it’s in Australia, Asia, Europe, North or South America. We’ve looked in the deep sea, in Arctic ice, in the gut of hundreds of fish from the English Channel, and we’ve found microplastic contamination everywhere.
Professor Richard Thompson, OBE FRS