International Marine Litter Research Unit impact

The REF 2014 panel considered our work on microplastic “to demonstrate outstanding impact in terms of its reach and significance.”

Title of case study

Discovery of microplastics as key anthropogenic contaminants in the marine environment.

Summary of the impact

Researchers at the University of Plymouth were the first to demonstrate the occurrence of microscopic plastic debris in the environment. 

Professor Richard Thompson’s team showed that ‘microplastic’ particles had accumulated since the 1960s and are present in oceans worldwide. 

This case study describes the impacts from these findings and the subsequent research by the team which demonstrated that marine organisms could ingest and retain this material and that, upon ingestion, microplastics had the potential to release chemical contaminants. 

The research impacted on UK, European and American policy and contributed to a body of evidence which influenced companies to phase-out microplastics from their products.

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