It has been quite a year for Professor Richard Thompson, marine biologist, and the man whose research over the last decade has put microplastics pollution on the global map.
There was the summons to provide evidence to the Environment Select Committee in the summer, which put the topic of microplastic in the environment placed under a ministerial microscope. Then in the autumn there followed numerous national and international media calls in the wake of the government’s announcement that it would pass legislation to ban the use of ‘microbeads’ in cosmetics. And if that wasn’t examination enough, October found Richard playing a starring role of a very different kind, in CBBC’s flagship career discovery programme All Over The Workplace.
In truth, it has been quite a remarkable number of years for Richard. Ever since he and research colleagues published a landmark paper in Science in 2004, in which they first coined the term ‘microplastics’, he has been at the forefront of a huge scientific, ecological and socioeconomic push to do something about the problem of plastic waste in the environment.
“The single use plastic bag is an iconic symbol of our disposable throwaway society,” Richard says, assessing the scale of the challenge during a rare quiet moment on campus. “In many senses it is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the quantity of plastic, but is very symbolic of our wasteful use of resources and was a very good place to start with legislation. But if we really want to make progress, we have to start to look at the goods that are inside those bags. And considering microbeads in cosmetic products represents the best step toward addressing these products.”
The summons to the select committee was Richard’s third appearance in such a forum. Communicating the outcomes of his team’s research to policy has become an increasingly important aspect of his work, not just in the UK, but globally. From addressing John Kerry, the then US Secretary of State, to the climate bodies of both the UN and the EU, his expertise and knowledge is in high demand in the policy arena.
The government made the announcement in October 2016 that it would be introducing legislation to ban microbeads, which are commonly used in products such as facial scrubs and shower gels. It is one of many product areas that Richard has been testing, with recent work expanding to synthetic fibres released from textiles during laundering. This research led by PhD student Imogen Napper showed that hundreds of thousands of plastic fibres could enter the water column with each washing load.
“Someone said to me after the announcement was made on the cosmetics ‘You must be really pleased’. Well I am, but on its own, it won’t solve the problem of marine litter. It’s an important step because it’s an avoidable source of debris, but we have a long way to go to substantially reduce the accumulation of litter in the environment.”