International Marine Litter Research Unit

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.

The Queen's Anniversary Prize for pioneering research on marine microplastics pollution and its impact on the environment and changing behaviour

Nearly two decades of world-leading research into the effects of marine plastics on our environment by Plymouth researchers, led by Professor Richard Thompson OBE, has received the highest honour that can be bestowed upon a higher education institution.

Recognition for our discovery of microplastics

Echoing a 400-year-old voyage of discovery

In 1969, IBM’s pioneering technology helped put man on the moon. Today, the company is working with us as we reflect on Plymouth's own history.

The Mayflower set sail from Plymouth to America in 1620 in search of a new world of opportunity. That historic voyage has become an inspiring symbol of discovery.

The University is working in collaboration with Promare, MSubs and IBM, to innovate an autonomous ship, which will conduct ground-breaking research as it emulates the Mayflower’s oceanic path in September 2020.

Our shared goal is to evolve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of our research within autonomous technology and artificial intelligence.

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 Thompson's opinion piece

Informing policy: giving evidence on microplastics to Parliament

Written and oral evidence supplied by Professor Richard Thompson OBE informed the report from the Environmental Audit Committee inquiry on microplastics.

Learn more about the inquiry

The report draws widely on microplastics research undertaken at the University of Plymouth, and in particular the paper on microbeads used in cosmetics (Napper, I. E., Bakir, A., Rowland, S. J. & Thompson, R. C. 2015 Characterisation, Quantity and Sorptive Properties of Microplastics Extracted From Cosmetics. Marine Pollution Bulletin 99, 178-185).

The Environmental Audit Committee Report, which calls for a ban on the use of microbeads in cosmetics, can be seen at Publication of Environmental impact of microplastics report together with an interactive report summary.

Plastic Fantastic

Professor Richard Thompson OBE features in a three-part BBC Radio 4 series about our love/hate relationship with plastic. 

Plastic Fantastic examines how the materials have become part of our everyday lives but also how they have become a global problem. 

Professor Thompson - one of the foremost international experts on the issue of marine plastic pollution - features in all three episodes, which also explore efforts to find a global solution to the issue of plastic waste.

Listen to Plastic Fantastic on BBC Radio 4

Researching plastic pollution within the marine environment

Dr Imogen Napper spent her PhD working with Professor Richard Thompson in the University’s International Marine Litter Research Unit.

Imogen was awarded a prestigious scholarship to advance her research into microplastics found in the marine environment.

Learn more about Imogen and her work to #EndPlasticSoup