Impact: International Marine Litter Research Unit

From the first publication on microplastics in 2004, the team 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.

<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

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
  • b Read our research publications


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
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>


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)