Professor Richard Thompson made an OBE for services to marine science

Professor Richard Thompson, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth, has been made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the New Year Honours.

The accolade, for Services to Marine Science, reflects his status as a world-leading authority on the problems caused by plastic pollution in the marine environment and the potential solutions.

It also acknowledges his passion to inspire future generations of marine biologists through his work with undergraduate and postgraduate students at the University.

The honour is the latest recognition for Professor Thompson, who earlier in 2017 received the Marsh Award for Marine and Freshwater Conservation from the Zoological Society of London.

A Professor of Marine Biology, and Associate Dean (Research) within the Faculty of Science and Engineering at the University, he said:

“It is a great and unexpected honour to be made an OBE. I have always been passionate about our oceans and trying to raise awareness of the environmental issues they are facing. In my view, there are solutions to many of these problems but we need to act now in order to safeguard our seas and their wildlife for the future.

“It is fantastic to see that work done by my team of collaborators in Plymouth is receiving such recognition, and I am very appreciative of the support my family has given in helping me to pursue my passion for the marine environment.”

A marine biologist for more than two decades, his research focuses on the effects of plastic debris in the marine environment, the modification of coastal engineering to enhance biodiversity and the ecology and conservation of shallow water habitats.

In 2004, he published a seminal piece of research in Science in which he coined use of the term microplastics to describe the microscopic plastic fragments found in our oceans.

Since then, he has been involved in a number of key discoveries including demonstrating the potential for microplastics to transport chemicals to marine life, and the global distribution of microplastics from shorelines to the deep seas and arctic sea ice.

He has contributed to government legislation on single-use carrier bags and the use of microbeads in cosmetics, and given evidence to parliamentary inquiries in which one politician referred to him as the “Godfather of microplastic research”.

He has also delivered numerous international presentations, including speaking at John Kerry’s ‘Our Ocean’ conference in Washington, DC in 2014 and other events organised by the United Nations and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

At the University, he for many years led the BSc (Hons) Marine Biology course, on which he continues to teach on several modules and to coordinate an annual fieldwork trip to Portugal.

He conducts research projects with undergraduates and postgraduates, with studies involving the degradation of plastic carrier bags, the breakdown of fabrics while washing clothes and the prevalence of microbeads in cosmetics all being published with university students.

Other members of the University community to be recognised in the New Year's Honours list included, Professor Stephen Sparks, CBE, an Honorary Doctor of Science, who was knighted for services to volcanology and geology; author Michael Morpurgo, a Doctor of Education, was knighted for services to literature and charity; and Dr Helen Sharman, an Honorary Doctor of Technology, was appointed to the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George, for services to science and technology educational outreach.

And Wendy Smith, Strategic Lead for Community Engagement at the newly-formed Plymouth health charity Well Connected, has been awarded an MBE in the Near Year’s Queen’s Honours list for her ‘services to oral health care and dental education in the South West’. Wendy was a founding member of the Community Engagement team within the University's Peninsula Dental School.

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 Thompson’s 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.

Expertise

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.

Plastic pollution and the planet

In the UK, scientists have for years been saying that more needs to be done to combat the problems posed by marine litter and microplastics. But it is only by creating a sea change in public ways of thinking that we can bring about a positive change.

Read Professor Richard Thompson's opinion piece

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