Waves pushing plastic waste to the beach.

Plastics are of great benefit to society

Versatile, inexpensive and durable, the benefits of plastic materials are numerous. For example, as lightweight parts in cars and aeroplanes that help reduce fuel usage and associated carbon emissions, or as packaging that can help reduce food wastage. 
Synthetic plastic products have only been mass-produced for around 70 years but have become essential in many areas of our lives. 
However, unnecessary and avoidable plastics, particularly single-use or short-lived and disposable items, are accumulating at rates, faster than we can dispose of them. This has resulted in environmental pollution on a global scale.
Plastic production has risen exponentially in recent decades and now amounts to some 400 million tons per year – a figure that could double by 2040.

Why is there a global plastic emergency?

From the deep sea and the Arctic to Mount Everest, there is evidence of plastic pollution all over the world, and at every stage of the life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials to make plastic products, to its disposal when no longer needed. As such, plastic production contributes directly to climate change and biodiversity loss. 
Without meaningful action, emissions of plastic waste into aquatic ecosystems are projected to nearly triple by 2040.
marine plastics, plastic, marine litter, on a beach
A hand reaches into a pile of small plastic pieces, that are about to be sorted and recycled. 
Plastic litter washed up on beach with tree

What can be done to address the challenge of plastic pollution?

Over 40% of all the plastics we produce are single use, but once thrown away can stay in our environment for hundreds if not thousands of years. Part of the problem is that most plastic items are designed with little consideration about inherent value when they’re no longer needed.
Some products use plastics where it is not essential. Think of microbeads used in cosmetic products. Some products contain millions of small plastic particles that inevitably escape to the natural environment. Think of the waste from single use plastic carrier bags, compared to reusable bags.
But in some cases, plastics may be the best material for the job. Think of transporting lemonade. A bottle made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is lightweight and has a lower footprint in terms of transport than glass; and like glass, PET also has a high potential for recyclability.
Getty image plastic bag sea
Underwater plastic pollution looking up to surface
Beautiful sea hawksbill turtle swiming above colorful tropical coral reef polluted with plastic bag

How can we turn the tide on plastic pollution?

Even products like PET bottles that are potentially recyclable, often have colourings incorporated into them and the presence of those colourings renders the end-of-life bottle much less viable to recycled and so it is harder for such products to contribute to a circular economy.
We need to drastically reduce the production of primary plastic polymers – raw materials that have been made into plastic through an industrial process – and ensure what is produced is essential, safe and sustainable. For example, using re-fill and re-use products and designing for a circular rather than a linear economy.
Ultimately, the issue can only be tacked by changes right along the supply chain from material extraction to disposal. Consumers can help take ownership of the problem by reducing plastic usage. This can be as simple as saying no to single-use plastic and instead carrying reusables, from cutlery, coffee cups and water bottles to carrier bags. 
We all need to do our bit by making sure the plastic items we use, and hopefully re-use, are recycled at the end of their lifetime. But that's only going to work if plastic products are designed in the first place to maximise compatibility with re-use and recyclability.
Professor Richard Thompson and University of Plymouth Alum, Hannah Pragnall-Rasch, Policy Specialist, Ocean Conservancy.
Professor Richard Thompson presenting at INC-2 in Paris for the global plastics treaty
Professor Richard Thompson speaking at INC-4.

What is the Global Plastics Treaty?

Think of the Paris Agreement on climate change, which committed nations to preventing global temperatures rising by more than 1.5ºC. A United Nations Treaty on Plastic Pollution, commonly referred to as the global plastics treaty, is currently under negotiation.
A historic resolution, to end plastic pollution and forge an international legally binding agreement by 2024, was adopted at the fifth session of the UN's Environment Assembly in 2022.
Designed to support progress towards the ambition set out within the UN's Sustainable Development Goals the global plastics treaty was committed to by 170 world leaders.
An Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) was set-up to develop a comprehensive approach that addresses the full life cycle of plastic, including its production, design, and disposal. So began a series of global meetings.

Scientific evidence of harm right along the plastic life cycle – from material extraction to disposal – has helped bring a once in a planet opportunity to address the issue of plastic pollution via a legally binding global treaty. Scientific evidence will be just as critical to guiding the way forward. Progress towards safe, sustainable and equitable decision making urgently requires a clear mandate for an independent science-policy interface as a subsidiary body to the future treaty. A body whose members are free of conflict of interest, in order to help guide the way towards more responsible use of plastics.

Richard Thompson OBE FRSRichard Thompson OBE FRS
Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth

Researchers from the University of Plymouth are helping provide robust evidence to help inform delegates. Professor Richard Thompson OBE FRS attended INC2 in Paris and then led a team of five University researchers at INC-3 in Nairobi and INC-4 in Ottawa, Canada where world leaders recently gathered to continue discussing the global plastics treaty. 
During INC4, the University hosted a panel debate and networking event centred around alternatives and substitutes to plastics, welcoming 130 delegates including scientists, industry leaders, non-government organisations, policy makers and media from across the globe.
Professor Thompson, Director of the Marine Institute, has worked with other researchers to produce policy briefs to advise negotiators and made recommendations to help inform the effectiveness of the treaty.
In his role as Co-Coordinator of the Scientists' Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty, Professor Thompson is one of over 300 independent scientists from across the world who have the aim of ensuring the treaty is informed by independent science.

Pioneers of marine plastics research

‘We can’t carry on’: the godfather of microplastics on how to stop them. An interview with Professor Richard Thompson
Over two decades, the award-winning and highly-cited research and expertise of the University’s Marine Institute has informed UK and international policy to date – in turn helping to build momentum and inform the detail of future global action. The team’s 2004 landmark paper, Lost at Sea: Where is all the Plastic?, was the first to describe microplastics in the ocean, and they have continued to contribute fundamental understanding of microplastics ever since. 
The International Marine Litter Research have pioneered methods for monitoring and tracking marine plastics, the effects of plastics on marine life, economies and human health and wellbeing, as well as solutions to mitigate plastic pollution.
Professor Richard Thompson
Richard Thompson, Professor of Marine Biology and Director of the University’s Marine Institute, continues to set the international agenda on research into the causes and effects of marine litter.

Evidence-informed solutions

Our research focuses on understanding the accumulation and harm caused by marine litter, and the potential solutions to this global crisis.

Getty image 872418096 tyres 

TYRE-LOSS: Lost at Sea – where are all the tyre particles?

Environmental Issue: Underwater image of Plastic in the Ocean. The location here is Phi Phi Islands, Krabi, Thailand.

PISCES: a systems analysis approach to reduce plastic waste in Indonesian societies

Agriculture is project to be one of the industries contributing biodegradable plastics to the environment (Credit Getty Images)

BIO-PLASTIC-RISK: biodegradable bioplastics – assessing environmental risk

International Marine Litter Research Unit

Marine litter is a global environmental problem with items of debris now contaminating habitats from the poles to the equator, from the sea surface to the deep sea. 
Furthering our understanding of litter on the environment and defining solutions.
Marine litter