Underwater plastic pollution looking up to surface
Microplastic pollution has previously been identified as a global issue through work by the International Marine Litter Research Unit (IMLRU). There is evidence of microplastic debris in some of Earth’s remotest locations, from the deep sea to the Artic. The team have also discovered that microplastics originate from multiple sources, including daily activities such as washing clothing and driving along a road.
Our team’s research and evidence has influenced both national and international legislation and policy. Their work continues to investigate the lasting impact that microplastic pollution has on marine biodiversity and organisms and uses a solutions-focused approach to preventing further damage to our precious planet.

The first formal independent evaluation of a seabin device 

It is estimated that in the UK alone, local authorities spend an average of £6,000 per km per year (Mouat et al., 2010) on cleaning ports, harbours and areas of touristic importance, generating a growing interest in the use of mechanical devices to facilitate clean-up. Researchers from the International Marine Litter Research Unit set out to investigate the performance of the Seabin – a "trash skimmer" created for calm sheltered environments – and discovered that it captured one marine organism for every 3.6 items of litter; around 13 organisms a day, including species such as sandeels, brown shrimp and crabs. Around 60% of those organisms were found to be dead upon retrieval.

Tyre particles enter our waterways through storm water, waste water and airborne dust

330 billion road miles are driven in the UK every year, generating particles of synthetic rubber as a consequence of friction between the tyre and the road surface. It has been estimated that tyre wear could account for 65% (18,000 tonnes annually) of all microplastics released to UK surface waters. Our research revealed for the first time that substantial quantities of tyre particles are indeed entering the sea via storm water, waste water and from airborne dust and scientists are now looking towards establishing the potential for any associated risks to marine life at environmentally relevant concentrations.

Washing clothes releases thousands of synthetic microfibres into our oceans

Our research has identified synthetic fibres released as a result of washing of textiles as a major source of microplastics. These are sometimes too small to be captured by washing machine filters. Use of more natural fibres in clothing could help to reduce these microplastics, whilst increasing the longevity of garments. Microfibre filters added to washing machines could also form part of the solution.

How does marine debris impact on sea fans?

Pink sea fans are corals which grow slowly off the coast of Britain. However, their fragile nature can often expose them to entanglement in marine debris which causes them to break off. They create important feeding habitats for our marine species so protecting them is important. Reducing and removing marine litter from our beaches and oceans will help to prevent further damage to marine life. 

The road to banning microbeads in cosmetics

Our research identified microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics as a major source of microplastic pollution. Professor Richard Thompson and team then provided evidence to Defra and the UK Parliament in 2015 which led directly to a ban on the use of these beads in cosmetic products in 2018. Their influence has led to similar policy actions in other countries around the world.
University of Plymouth image showing the contrast in levels of microbeads found in cosmetics products, 2015 (top) and 2018.

Turning the tide on plastics

Professor Richard Thompson OBE FRS has spent over two decades researching the accumulation of plastics in the environment. He discusses the benefits of using plastics in everyday society and reviews the life cycle of plastics. However, there are challenges within the current supply chain which make plastic usage a huge environmental problem. Working together towards a circular economy will help to reduce our environmental footprint from plastic usage, driving a more sustainable future.