Plymouth Pioneers

Richard, Professor of Marine Biology and Director of the University’s Marine Institute, continues to set the international agenda on research into the causes and effects of marine litter. 

A decade-and-a-half on from his seminal paper, which for the first time described the accumulation of ‘microplastics’ in the oceans, he has mapped out much of the territory upon which our understanding of both the impacts of plastics and the potential solutions are based.  Under his leadership, Plymouth has produced more scientific publications on the subject of marine plastic than any other university worldwide, with Richard himself having led or co-authored more than 180 scientific papers.

Influencing global change around plastic pollution 

He founded and heads the University’s International Marine Litter Research Unit, which has charted the global distribution of microplastics from Arctic sea ice to the deep seas. Among its many high profile research findings are that a single wash of clothing can release more than 700,000 microfibres into the environment, that facial scrubs could contain up to 2.8 million microbeads, that carrier bags labelled as biodegradable are still usable after three years submerged in soil and seawater, and that of the marine species known to encounter litter in the environment, the vast majority are with plastic.

Thought Leadership

Addressing plastic pollution on a global scale

Many of the UK’s largest supermarkets and other retailers, alongside companies who use plastics such as Nestlé and environmental campaigners and campaign groups, have signed an open letter that supports the need for a binding worldwide treaty to tackle plastic pollution. Read more about the plastics challenge...

From microbeads to road debris

This ongoing research has directly influenced UK and international government policies around taxes on plastic carrier bags and the use of microbeads in cosmetics, with Richard also contributing to government funded research and inquiries into road debris and sustainability within the fashion industry. 

He has for many years acted as a scientific advisor to national and international organisations, including the United Nations and European Commission, and in 2018 was made an OBE for services to Marine Science and Higher Education, as well as receiving an Impact Award from the Natural Environment Research Council.

The person behind the pioneer

“We don’t yet know how long it takes plastic to degrade in the natural environment. We’ve only been mass producing plastic for around 60 years and the likelihood is that all of the conventional plastics we’ve ever made are still with us on the planet, unless they’ve been incinerated.”

Read more about Professor Richard Thompson

The Queen's Anniversary Prize for pioneering research on marine microplastics pollution and its impact on the environment and changing behaviour

Nearly two decades of world-leading research into the effects of marine plastics on our environment by Plymouth researchers, led by Professor Richard Thompson OBE FRS, has received the highest honour that can be bestowed upon a higher education institution.

World number one for marine impact 2021

We are ranked first out of 379 institutions worldwide against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal number 14: life below water.
The award recognises the quality of our marine research and teaching as well as our efforts to reduce the impact of campus activities on the marine environment. The Times Higher Education Impact Rankings are the only global performance tables that assess universities against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

I think the work we have done at the University has had a really major role in raising awareness of this topic. There are a number of independent accounts that cite the early work we did, particularly the description of microplastics and their accumulation in the environment, which was a tipping point in the level of interest in the whole topic in the academic community and wider public.

Society knows the general direction of travel towards potential solutions, but charting the course to specific actions is much less clear. And we can’t get there just by banning plastics – we have to learn to use them more responsibly. We need independent evidence to guide intervention, and that evidence should be provided by the academic community. The challenge is bringing together different disciplines – environmental, behavioural and material scientists, economists, and legal experts so we can evaluate options from a range of perspectives.

Professor Richard Thompson

Home of marine

Our marine and maritime excellence in world-leading research informs policy agendas for the sustainable management of ocean resources. Our work has significantly improved how to forecast extreme coastal events and their impact on communities. We were the first to study the ecological effects of ocean acidification, and now lead the UK agenda for offshore renewable energy. On national and international levels, we have influenced key policies, conservation practices, responses to climate change, public perception of marine issues, and are defining the pathways toward tangible solutions.
The culture of close collaboration across the city with researchers, policymakers, and local businesses has resulted in Plymouth’s nomination for the UK’s first National Marine Park – an initiative underpinned by research at the University.
Underwater bubbles