A team of researchers including Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth, has been shortlisted for a prestigious award.
The researchers, also including Professor Tamara Galloway and colleagues at the University of Exeter and Dr. Penelope Lindeque from Plymouth Marine Laboratory, are in the running for a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Impact Award.
The shortlisting recognizes the substantial benefit their pioneering work to establish the causes and effects of microplastics within the marine environment has provided for society.
Professor Thompson, also Director of the Marine Institute, published a seminal research paper in Science in 2004, which included the first mention of the term microplastics in its current context.
He and Professor Galloway received joint funding from the Leverhulme Trust to look in more depth at the effect tiny pieces of plastic could be having on marine life, as well as a number of separate funding grants from NERC and other research councils.
Working with marine scientists and psychologists, as well as undergraduate and postgraduate students, Professor Thompson has since been instrumental in several other key studies on this topic demonstrating:
- 700 marine species are known to encounter litter in the environment, the vast majority with plastic, and many of these encounters either harmful or fatal;
- Facial scrubs could contain up to 2.8 million microbeads, which was one of the key pieces of evidence that convinced the UK government to legislate against their use in wash-off cosmetics;
- The first evidence of substantial accumulation of microplastic in the deep sea;
- The first evidence of microplastics in the Arctic;
- A single wash load of acrylic clothing can release 700,000 microfibres.
The research has helped to raise awareness about the pervasive issue of microplastics among the public and the academic community and has seen the academics advising on the seminal BBC series Blue Planet II.
NERC Associate Director of Research Ned Garnett said, “A decade ago, the word 'microplastics' was a little-used term, and interest in their effects on the ocean environment was limited even among researchers. Now, the problem of our discarded plastics being broken down and polluting the ocean is well-known. The teams of pioneering researchers at the University of Plymouth, the University of Exeter and Plymouth Marine Laboratory have been instrumental to shedding light on the harmful effects of microplastics in the ocean, and their NERC-funded work has directly influenced legislation to help tackle this. We are proud to recognize this achievement in the 2018 NERC Impact Awards shortlist.”
Made an OBE for Services to Marine Science in the 2018 New Year’s Honours List, Professor Richard Thompson was described as the ‘Godfather of Microplastics’ during a sitting of the Government’s Environmental Audit Committee in June 2016
Professor Thompson said, “Since our first study describing microplastics was published in 2004, the science of plastic pollution in our oceans has changed almost beyond recognition. Funding from NERC and others has played a crucial role in that and having robust scientific information not only on the problem but also around the solutions is essential to help inform change. Research conducted here at the University has helped unite scientific evidence across the disciplines and, in particular, social and behavioral sciences which will be fundamental to catalyzing societal change. 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.
“A key challenge now is in evidencing the most appropriate solutions, and this will require us to continue working across disciplines to help ensure plastics are used responsibly; achieving the societal benefits they can bring without the current environmental and economic impacts.”
Source: University of Plymouth