Chesil Beach with marine litter.
From the first publication on microplastics in 2004, the International Marine Litter Research Unit (IMLRU) has dedicated much of the last two decades to understanding the environmental impacts of plastics in the ocean. 
Their work has influenced policy worldwide, and they are now working to provide the evidence that will underpin the most appropriate solutions.

Scientific discoveries

2019 – present

Pioneering microplastics researcher awarded the 2023 Blue Planet Prize

Professor Richard Thompson has been selected as a recipient of this prize to acknowledge his and the International Marine Litter Unit team's world-leading research conducted over the past 25 years, as well as his ongoing influence at a national and international level, to contribute to the resolution of the global environmental challenge of plastic pollution. 
Professor Richard Thompson
University researchers attend COP28 UN Climate Change Conference (2023)
  • Professor Richard Thompson and other leading academics from the University attended the COP28 Climate Change Conference. The University hosted a side event with an international panel of experts, and co-sponsored a Side Event with the Renewable Energy Association.
  • Professor Richard Thompson was a panel member for the COP28 Indonesia Pavilion Event to discuss the PISCES project as part of the theme: Collaborative Approach on Waste Economic Circularity Towards Climate Action in Indonesia.
Professor Richard Thompson delivers oral intervention at the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on plastic pollution 'INC-3' on behalf of the Scientists Coalition for an Effective Plastic Treaty
  • To consider a sectoral approach as a key requirement.
  • Using the example of fishing gear which requires a different approach than other plastic pollution – looking at its full life span including design, production, marking and tracking etc.
Professor Richard Thompson presents evidence to Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on plastic pollution (2023)
Research from the IMLRU will help to progress the Global Plastics Pollution Treaty and contributed to the French Senate's Parliamentary Office report on Plastic pollution: a ticking time bomb.
University academic contributes to report highlighting plastic's threat to human and planetary health (2023)
University leads call for new legally-binding treaty to protect Earth's orbit (2023)
  • Professor Richard Thompson and Dr Imogen Napper contribute to article published in the journal Science calling for a new legally-binding treaty to ensure Earth’s orbit isn’t irreparably harmed by the future expansion of the global space industry.
  • Any agreement, should include measures to implement producer and user responsibility for satellites and debris, from the time they launch onwards. Such considerations are consistent with current proposals to address ocean plastic pollution as countries begin negotiations for the Global Plastics Treaty.
  • University press release – Scientists call for global push to eliminate space debris.
University researchers attend COP27 UN Climate Change Conference (2022)
  • Professor Richard Thompson and other leading academics from the University attended the COP27 Climate Change Conference. They participated in expert panels and exhibitions to discuss the issues facing our planet and some of the potential solutions.
  • The IMLRU contribution focused on the accumulation of plastics in the environment and their impact on climate change. 
Volvo Environment Prize 2022 Laureates. From Left to right; Professor Penelope Lindeque, Plymouth Marine Laboratory; Professor Richard Thompson, University of Plymouth and Professor Tamara Galloway, Exeter University

Volvo Environment Prize 2022 awarded for world-leading microplastics research

For two decades Professor Richard Thompson OBE FRS, Professor Tamara Galloway OBE (University of Exeter) and Professor Penelope Lindeque (Plymouth Marine Laboratory) have worked to discover the global extent of microplastics in our oceans and their impact on the environment and our food chains. They have also looked into potential solutions to this international problem.
Their continued collaboration and research has helped to bring about changes in global policy, influencing the United Nations Treaty on Plastic Pollution, signed by 175 nations earlier this year. 
Can mechanical devices be used to clear plastic pollution? (2022)
Leading UK marine scientists welcome the move towards a global plastics pact (2022)
Plastic Pollution: 2022 UN Ocean Conference- University holds official virtual side event (2022)
  • The topic of plastic pollution has received considerable global attention and as a consequence, was the focus of a recent UNEA 5.2 resolution entitled ‘End Plastic Pollution: Towards an internationally legally binding instrument’.
  • This online discussion, question and answer session with experts from industry, policy and academia helped to identify the critical science and innovation needed to tackle this global environmental challenge.
Plymouth academics participate in COP26 UN Climate Change Conference (2021)
Professor Richard Thompson and Dr Florian Pohl looked at the need for a whole-system approach to climate and transport, considering both carbon and particulate emissions such as from tyres. 

Terrestrial borne litter in the marine environment (2021)

Professor Richard Thompson and Dr Winnie Courtene-Jones contributed evidence to a Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) report in October 2021.
Data indicates that marine litter is still common and not decreasing in the UK. Evidence in this report provides information on the sources of marine litter and the pathways in which they enter the marine environment to support the UK's 25 Year Plan, Litter Strategy England and Resources and Waste Strategy. Professor Thompson and Dr Courtene-Jones found that from the available data, public-sources were identified as having the greatest contribution to overall quantities of litter.
Pollution problem - plastic bag in the ocean. Image courtesy of Shutterstock
School of tropical fish swimming near a coral reef

Research Excellence Framework 2021

The University of Plymouth achieved excellent results in the REF 2021 submissions. The ground-breaking work of the International Marine Litter Research Unit (IMLRU) has become the epitome of impact-led, socially engaged research. The team has been pioneering in their work to identify the issue of microplastics and marine litter, reveal its true global scale, and influence policy in key areas to tackle it.  

World number 1 for marine impact

The Times Higher Education Impact Rankings assess universities globally against the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 
In 2021 the University was ranked 1st globally in relation to SDG 14: Life Below Water, recognising the quality of the University’s outstanding marine and maritime research, teaching and innovation as well as its efforts to reduce the impact of campus activities on the marine environment.
Find out more about the University's rankings.
Underwater tropical fish on coral reef
Researchers from the University contribute to All Party Parliamentary Group on Microplastics (2020-2021)
  • The National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) launched a campaign in 2017 to 'End Plastic Soup'. It explored the scale of microplastic fibre pollution and called on the government and industry to develop solutions to the problem. This campaign saw the launch of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Microplastics in September 2020.
  • Professor Richard Thompson and Dr Imogen Napper's research on the release of microplastic fibres from laundering clothing informed the APPG on their 2021 report 'Microplastic policies for Government'.
  • The report received national media coverage and was referenced by the Environmental Audit Committee in Parliament in its inquiry into the environmental impact of fashion.
Study identifies tyre particles as a major and additional source of microplastics (2020)
Study proves biodegradable bags degrade insufficiently after three years in the natural environment (2019)
University research results in the demise of environmentally damaging flushable products (2019)
  • Richard Thompson's work with Anglian Water influenced the outcomes of the international standard, WG10- Flushable Products ISO 24524, which laid the foundations for the successful introduction of the UK Water Industry Standard Fine to Flush (WIS F2F).
  • As a result of this WIS F2F introduction, industry leaders made changes to the products sold as flushable so that consumers know that products will break down in the sewer system. 

The Queen's Anniversary Prize awarded in 2019 for microplastics discovery work

Our world-leading research into marine microplastics pollution and its impact on the environment and changing behaviour has received the highest honour that can be bestowed upon a higher education institution.
The team's work has resulted in repeated scientific breakthroughs which have influenced both national and international legislation.
Queen's Anniversary Prize ceremony
Study proves biodegradable bags degrade insufficiently after three years in the natural environment (2019)


MadeAtUni logo

Microplastics research highlighted as one of UK’s 100 best university breakthroughs

“More plastic has been produced in the last seven years than in all of the last century. Through greater awareness of the problem, the wider world is waking up to this global challenge and the importance of taking action.”
The work of the International Marine Litter Research Unit is featured in a campaign from Universities UK

Participation by University academics in New Scientist Live

Keynote address at Micro 2018

Professor Richard Thompson OBE delivered a keynote at the recent Micro 2018 conference in Lanzarote.
This picture, taken after the talk, shows him with past and current students and collaborators also attending the international event. 
Keynote address at Micro 2018

UK Government bans microbeads in cosmetics

Professor Richard Thompson was invited by the Galapagos Conservation Trust to support efforts to eliminate plastic pollution

Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey pledges £200,000 of UK Government money into the tyre particle research (microfibers)

International Year of the Reef: Research Seminar 'Marine Litter: Are there solutions to this global environmental problem?'

  • British High Commission Singapore, National University of Singapore, and the National Parks Board invited Richard to give his talk.

Richard Thompson takes part in PolyTalk 2018
Under the banner of “Together we must save our oceans from litter”, PolyTalk 2018 was held in St-Julian’s, Malta and brought together more than 190 high-level representatives from the world of politics, industry, media, NGOs, science and academia. Plastics Europe press release.

Scientists earn awards for global impact of microplastics research

A team including Plymouth won the Societal Impact category and overall prize in the Natural Environment Research Council’s 2018 Impact Awards. Read more in our press release.

Microbeads in cosmetics
Microbeads in cosmetics
Richard Thompson discussing marine litter with Karmenu Vella, EU Commissioner for the Environment at the PlasticsEurope conference on marine litter PolyTalk 18.
Richard Thompson discussing marine litter with Karmenu Vella, EU Commissioner for the Environment at PolyTalk 18
Car tyre on road with sunset
Tyre particle research


'Foresight Future of the Sea' report for UK Government

Richard Thompson receives Marsh Award for Marine and Freshwater Conservation

Professor Richard Thompson made an OBE for services to marine science

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 students at the University.


Study discovers microplastic fibres are released into the environment when washing clothes

International Marine Litter Research Unit advises G7 on marine litter monitoring (2016)

  • 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.

UK introduces single use plastic bag tax (2015)

Richard Thompson invited to talk at John Kerry's 'Our Oceans: Marine Pollution' conference for the US Department of State (2014) 

Richard Thompson meets US Secretary of State, John Kerry. Conference looked at state of world's oceans, 30 global scientists invited.

IMLRU delivers four star Impact Case study for the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014: Discovery of microplastics as key anthropogenic contaminants in the marine environment

Richard Thompson asked by the United Nations Environment Programme to identify 'Global and Regional Solutions to the Marine Debris Problem' (2011)

EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive – Expert Group on Marine Debris (2010-present)

  • Co-author on reports for the European Union

Imogen Napper has spent her PhD working with Professor Richard Thompson to assess the quantities of microbeads within cosmetics and the amount of fibres released into the marine environment by washing clothes.
Imogen Napper's PhD work looks at microbeads within cosmetics and fibres released into the marine environment by clothes washing
Plastic debris research
Plastic debris
Profesor Thompson with members of the Japanese Environment Ministry
Professor Thompson with members of the Japanese Environment Ministry


Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP), an advisory body of the UN, discusses microplastics following IMLRU's research (2009)

White paper produced following United States Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to organise the first international meeting on microplastics at the University of Washington (2008)

EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive – Task Group 10: Marine Debris (2007–2009)

Richard Thompson takes part in International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) working group on environmental aspects of marine renewable energy (2008–2010)

Richard Thompson’s research first coined the term ‘microplastics’ (2004)