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.

Plastic Fantastic

Professor Richard Thompson OBE features in a new 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 will also explore efforts to find a global solution to the issue of plastic waste.

Listen to Plastic Fantastic on BBC Radio 4

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

Strandings of North East Atlantic pink sea fans

Pink sea fans are a protected species, yet hundreds of sea fans are found on beaches around the South West UK, entangled in marine debris.

Read the full paper

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 UK ban on plastic microbeads is important.

Professor of Marine Biology Richard Thompson OBE 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 OBE 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 the University of Plymouth 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.

PolyTalk 18

Richard Thompson discussing marine litter with Karmenu Vella, EU Commissioner for the Environment at the PlasticsEurope conference on marine litter, PolyTalk 18.

International Marine Litter Research Unit advises G7 on marine litter monitoring

In December 2016, Professor 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

Authored and edited books, chapters and reports

Marine Institute 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