Pioneering microplastics research earns national award nomination

A team of researchers including Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth, has been shortlisted for a prestigious award.

The researchers, also including Professor Tamara Galloway and colleagues at the University of Exeter and Dr Penelope Lindeque from Plymouth Marine Laboratory, are in the running for a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Impact Award.

The shortlisting recognises the substantial benefit their pioneering work to establish the causes and effects of microplastics within the marine environment has provided for society.

Professor Thompson, also Director of the Marine Institute, published a seminal research paper in Science in 2004, which included the first mention of the term microplastics in its current context.

He and Professor Galloway received joint funding from the Leverhulme Trust to look in more depth at the effect tiny pieces of plastic could be having on marine life, as well as a number of separate funding grants from NERC and other research councils.

Working with marine scientists and psychologists, as well as undergraduate and postgraduate students, Professor Thompson has since been instrumental in several other key studies on this topic demonstrating:

The research has helped to raise awareness about the pervasive issue of microplastics among the public and the academic community, and has seen the academics advising on the seminal BBC series Blue Planet II.

NERC Associate Director of Research Ned Garnett said:

“A decade ago, the word 'microplastics' was a little used term and interest in their effects on the ocean environment was limited even among researchers. Now, the problem of our discarded plastics being broken down and polluting the ocean is well-known. The teams of pioneering researchers at the University of Plymouth, the University of Exeter and Plymouth Marine Laboratory have been instrumental to shedding light on the harmful effects of microplastics in the ocean, and their NERC-funded work has directly influenced legislation to help tackle this. We are proud to recognise this achievement in the 2018 NERC Impact Awards shortlist.”

Professor Judith Petts, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Plymouth, said:

“Richard is a genuine pioneer of marine science, and I am immensely proud of his continued achievements. For more than a decade, his research has set the agenda others have followed and policy-makers have responded to. And while plastic pollution is currently high in public consciousness, he continues to look for new and innovative ways to ensure that enthusiasm has lasting societal and environmental benefits. He is one of the University’s outstanding global ambassadors and this nomination is just reward for his work.”

Made an OBE for Services to Marine Science in the 2018 New Year’s Honours List, Professor Richard Thompson was described as the ‘Godfather of Microplastics’ during a sitting of the government’s Environmental Audit Committee in June 2016.

Read more about Professor Thompson's latest work

Professor Thompson said:

“Since our first study describing microplastics was published in 2004, the science of plastic pollution in our oceans has changed almost beyond recognition. Funding from NERC and others has played a crucial role in that and having robust scientific information not only on the problem, but also around the solutions is essential to help inform change.

“Research conducted here at the University has helped unite scientific evidence across the disciplines and, in particular, social and behavioural sciences which will be fundamental to catalysing societal change. More plastic has been produced in the last seven years than in all of the last century. Through greater awareness of the problem, the wider world is waking up to this global challenge and the importance of taking action.

“A key challenge now is in evidencing the most appropriate solutions and this will require us to continue working across disciplines to help ensure plastics are used responsibly; achieving the societal benefits they can bring without the current environmental and economic impacts.”

Professor Galloway, a Lecturer in Biochemistry in Plymouth from 1997 to 2007, said:

“We all have to make choices about how we use plastics and it isn't always easy to do the right thing. Plastics are in such a huge range of products - from mascara to coffee cups - that it can feel impossible to make a difference, but we can. The passion that drives my research is that I want to protect the environment. I want to protect it for my children, and for future generations.

“It is vitally important that we tackle the issue by preventing plastic waste from accumulating in the environment. We need to make the supply chain circular rather than the current linear model, which means usefully re-using the plastic products we make. We need to find alternative materials that can be produced cheaply and, crucially, don't break down into particles or chemicals that can cause harm to the environment.
“The public interest globally in plastic pollution has grown phenomenally since the microbeads ban.

"We are really hoping we can use all of that publicity in a really positive way, and drive some change to use materials that are safer by design, so that we get all the benefits of plastic, but we don't waste so much of it by throwing it away needlessly into the marine environment.”

Dr Penelope Lindeque, Lead Scientist of the Microplastic Research Team at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, added:

“We’re absolutely delighted that the work our microplastic team have undertaken over the past 10 years at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, in collaboration with the University of Plymouth and University of Exeter, has been recognised by NERC.

We have disseminated our results on the distribution, fate and impact of microplastics in the marine environment to a wide audience, from school children to government, and have been overwhelmed by the uptake of the issue of plastic pollution and the impact of our research. We’re extremely excited to be shortlisted for the NERC impact award and are very much looking forward to the event and meeting the other highly regarded shortlistees from all categories.”

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

Find out more about the International Marine Litter Research Unit

Marine Institute

Representing 3000 staff, researchers and students, the University of Plymouth's Marine Institute is the first and largest such institute in the UK. 

We provide the external portal to our extensive pool of world-leading experts and state-of-the-art facilities, enabling us to understand the relationship between the way we live, the seas that surround us and the development of sustainable policy solutions.

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