Marine litter, microplastics on the beach.

Finding a solution to the causes and impacts of marine litter is now widely recognised as one of the major environmental challenges of our time. And one of the key elements required to address the issue is encouraging people of all ages to move away from the current throwaway culture.

Now research led by the University of Plymouth has revealed that designing systematic and innovative education tools to teachers and students can make a significant and positive contribution to their understanding of the problem – and their willingness to do something about it.

The study, published in Marine Policy, was a collaboration with the Mediterranean Information Office for Environment, Culture and Sustainable Development in Greece and the Coastal and Marine Union in The Netherlands.

It is the first quantitative assessment of European students’ and educators’ attitudes to marine litter before and after participating in an online educational project designed to raise awareness and inspire action in the younger generation.

Dr Sabine Pahl, Associate Professor (Reader) in Psychology at the University of Plymouth, said:

“It is clear that the education sector represents an important agent of social change in society. This study shows that working with educators and school students has much potential to facilitate greater public understanding of complex environmental issues and to make them part of the solutions. It has important implications for marine policy, and demonstrates that, beyond providing mere knowledge and facts, employing creative tools and techniques can enable action.”

For the study, academics enrolled 120 educators from 18 countries across Europe in an online training course about marine litter, asking them to complete a series of assessments to ascertain how it changed their attitudes.

The results showed the educators had high intentions of implementing the materials in their teaching, and planned to encourage others in their network, which may lead to the training and resources to be distributed more widely.

They also invited 341 students aged seven to 18 from 12 European countries to take part in a video competition through which they were encouraged to make a two-minute video on the problem’s potential sources, impacts and solutions.

After taking part, they said they were more concerned about the problem and perceived greater negative impacts and causes. They also reported performing more waste reduction behaviours.

The study builds on the University’s interdisciplinary research into marine litter, with previous such studies showing marine litter can undermine the benefits of coastal environments and that the public’s love of the seas could be the key to solving plastic pollution.

Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University and one of the study’s authors, added:

"Over recent years, the world has really woken up to the global threat posed by marine litter. But while recognising the problem is one thing, increasing knowledge and changing behaviours are a far greater challenge. This research demonstrates educators can play a lead role in that, and it is essential to educate young people now so that they and future generations can live in a world without the threat of plastic pollution.”
The full study – Turning the tide on trash: Empowering European educators and school students to tackle marine litter by Bonny L. Hartley, Sabine Pahl, Matthew Holland, Iro Alampei, Joana M. Veiga, Richard C. Thompson – is published in Marine Policy,

A worldwide problem

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. This litter has negative consequences for wildlife, for economies and on human health. Over 700 species, including commercially important fish and shellfish, are known to encounter marine litter in the environment. The vast majority of the litter found on shorelines, at the sea surface and that affecting marine life is plastic, and it has been estimated that up to 12 million tons of plastic litter could be entering the ocean every year. There are solutions, but there is an urgent need for action.

At the forefront of marine research

The International Marine Litter Research Unit is proud to stand at the forefront of research in this area. In 2004 our team was the first to reveal the widespread occurrence of microscopic particles of plastic debris at the sea surface and on shorelines – pieces which we described as microplastics. We have published numerous scientific papers and reports on this topic, have advised governments and international organisations worldwide and we continue to research not only the extent of the problem, but also the solutions.

Our mission

The International Marine Litter Research Unit has a mission – to further our understanding of the impacts of litter on the environment and society, and to identify the solutions and the pathways necessary to achieve them.

Discovering microplastics

In 2004, Professor Richard Thompson OBE and his team showed that microplastic particles have accumulated in oceans since the 1960s and are now present worldwide. The International Marine Litter Research Unit described the accumulation of fragments of plastic debris in the oceans and much of its focus is on these microplastics. 

Our work has shown that microplastic debris now contaminates shorelines worldwide; that they are present in substantial quantities in remote locations such as the deep and the Arctic. A range of marine organisms including commercially important species can ingest these pieces and laboratory studies have shown there is potential for this to lead to harmful effects.

Former US President, Barack Obama, signed a bill outlawing the sale and distribution of toothpaste and exfoliating or cleansing products containing microbeads which are a type of microplastic. Our work on this topic has helped inform governments around the world. We submitted evidence to the UK Houses of Parliament in relation to the Environmental Audit Committee enquiry on microplastics.


Our findings are underpinned by research conducted by the team at the University of Plymouth and in collaboration with other leading scientists worldwide. This 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.