International Marine Litter Research Unit

A world wide 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 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 and microplastic. We have published numerous scientific papers and reports on this topic, have advised governments and international organizations 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, 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 microscopic fragments of plastic debris in the oceans and much of its focus is on these tiny particles which they described as 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.

Late last year 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 government around the world. Recently submitted evidence to the UK Houses of Parliament in relation the Environmental Audit Committee enquiry on microplastics.

Expertise

Our findings are underpinned by research conducted by the team at Plymouth University 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.

Washing clothes releases thousands of synthetic micro fibres

More than 700,000 microscopic fibres could be released into waste water during each use of a domestic washing machine, with many of them likely to pass through sewage treatment and into the environment.

By changing the type of fabrics we use it may be possible to reduce the release of these fibres, reducing the impact on the environment.

Plastic microbeads

Everyday cosmetic and cleaning products contain huge quantities of plastic particles, which can be released into the environment.

The International Marine Litter Research Unit explains why the proposed UK ban on plastic microbeads by 2017 is important.

Professor of Marine Biology Richard Thompson has been named among the most influential people to the UK plastics industry

Other high profile figures on the 70-person list, compiled by Plastics and Rubber Weekly, include the Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Governor of the Bank of England as well as prominent industry leaders

Professor Thompson was among only two academics to feature in the list

View the list on the PRW website

International Marine Litter Research Unit submits evidence on microplastics to Parliament

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

Learn more about the inquiry

The report draws widely on microplastics research undertaken at Plymouth University and in particular a recent 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.

International Marine Litter Research Unit advises G7 on marine litter monitoring

In December 2016 Prof Thompson visited Tokyo to advise on the monitoring of microplastics in the ocean. The meeting was organised by the Japanese Environment Ministry as part of their commitment through the G7 to reduce marine litter. The meeting included international experts on marine litter from Europe, America and Asia. One of the other experts was Dr Amy Lusher who previously studied BSc Marine Biology at the University of Plymouth before completing her PhD in Ireland.

Marine experts lead international report

Professor Peter Burkill and Professor Richard Thompson were co-editor and co-author respectively of Future of the Ocean and its Seas: a non-governmental scientific perspective on seven marine research issues of G7 interest, created by a working group drawn from a range of scientific bodies. Richard co-authored the chapter on plastic pollution in the marine environment, and Peter was one of three overall editors alongside senior figures at the Natural Environment Research Council and the National Oceanography Centre.

View the report at the ICSU website

MI News - issue 17, 2016

Marine litter is the focus of the latest MI News brochure.

In this issue discover microplastics, meet the team and find out how they are at the forefront of marine research.

Download the brochure