Impact: International Marine Litter Research Unit
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

  • H 2004 – First scientific paper describing microplastics
  • H 2007 – First paper on chemical transport to organisms by microplastic
  • H 2008 – First paper showing ingestion and retention of microplastics by organisms
  • H 2011 – First paper showing global distribution of microplastics
  • H 2013 – First paper showing microplastic ingested by natural populations of commercially important fish
  • H 2014 – First papers showing substantial accumulation of microplastics in Arctic and deep sea
  • H 2015 – First paper quantifying microbeads from cosmetic products
  • H 2017 – First paper quantifying release of microfibres from textiles
  • H 2018 – First paper showing distribution of nanoplastic throughout the body of a marine invertebrate
  • H 2020 – First study revealing vehicle tyres as a substantial source of marine microplastics
  • bRead our research publications

2019 – present

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. 

<p><i></i>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</p><p>


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)

Plymouth academics participate in COP26 UN Climate Change Conference (2021)

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.
<p>Underwater tropical fish on coral reef</p>

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)

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.

Read more about the research which won us the award
<p>Queen's Anniversary Prize logo for home page</p>


<p>MadeAtUni logo</p>

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

MadeAtUni: reducing marine plastic litter

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.

<p>Keynote address at Micro 2018<br></p>

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.

<p>Microbeads in cosmetics</p>
Microbeads in cosmetics
<p> Richard Thompson discussing marine litter with Karmenu Vella, EU Commissioner for the Environment at the PlasticsEurope conference on marine litter PolyTalk 18.<br></p>
Richard Thompson discussing marine litter with Karmenu Vella, EU Commissioner for the Environment at PolyTalk 18
<p>Car tyre on road with sunset<br></p>
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.

Learn more about Richard's work
<p>Professor Richard Thompson receiving his OBE from the Prince of Wales</p>


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

<p>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.<br></p>
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
<p>Profesor Thompson with members of the Japanese Environment Ministry</p>
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)