The Big Interview: Professor Richard Thompson

“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.”

It’s a sobering thought, especially when you consider that 300 million tonnes of plastic is produced every year, with around one third destined for single-use products. 

But then, Professor Richard Thompson OBE, has for the last 15 years been offering a strong dose of smelling salts on the issue thanks to his remarkable body of research on plastic pollution in our marine environment. 

A decade-and-a-half on from his seminal paper, describing the accumulation of what he named microplastics, Richard has mapped out much of the territory upon which our understanding of both the impacts of plastics and the potential solutions are based. For example, work by the International Marine Litter Research Unit he founded has shown that once in the environment a single plastic bag could be shredded into more than 1.75 million fragments. 

The Unit has also found that of the 700 marine species now known to encounter litter in the environment, the vast majority are with plastic, with many of these encounters proving either harmful or fatal. We’ve learned too that a single wash load of acrylic clothing can release 700,000 microfibres, and that facial scrubs can contain up to 2.8 million microbeads – at least they did until the government banned their use in wash-off cosmetics, a decision based upon Richard’s expert findings. 

The Blue Planet-effect might have made marine plastics a household topic, but it was work by Richard and his team that dredged up the supporting evidence and placed it under the spotlight. 

“From a distance it is very clear that ours is a blue planet, but as we move closer, we see that the surface of our oceans and our seas are strewn with marine debris,” he says as we walk along the sandy cove at North Bay, on the edge of Salcombe. “Even here, on what is a clean beach, I’ve noticed small bits of blue and red microplastic, particularly near the tide line. And that’s the point. The plastics issue is not just about an enormous pile of rubbish on a heavily contaminated beach somewhere in the Pacific. It’s the fact that it’s on every shoreline. As our work has so clearly shown, we find microplastics in every sample of beach sand, whether it’s in Australia, Asia, Europe, North or South America. We’ve looked in the deep sea, in Arctic ice, in the gut of hundreds of fish from the English Channel, and we’ve found microplastic contamination everywhere.”

It feels like Richard is everywhere too, as ubiquitous as the pollution he’s been studying. The newly-appointed Director of the University’s Marine Institute was in France just 24 hours earlier giving a keynote lecture at a conference for the European Science Foundation. In May, it was the Galapagos Islands, for a research trip to look at the issue of litter, and how the area might serve as a model system helping our understanding for other regions. And in the days to come, he’s meeting with HRH Prince Charles to discuss his research, and heading off to Singapore and Australia for more lectures and high-level talks, and an overdue family holiday.

“From the local rotary club to major international organisations, the level of interest in plastic pollution is unprecedented,” Richard says. “And I think that is because plastics are so readily visible. At a basic level, we the public can see the things that are accumulating as litter and we realise that they are everyday items – the drinks bottles and crisp packets – and it feels so unnecessary. So there is a story here of an environmental challenge that I think is solvable and that the public are keen to act upon.”

<p>Plastic marine litter</p>
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Plastic marine litter

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<p>Plastic marine litter<br></p>

On this particular morning, Richard’s in-demand diary has summoned him along the South Devon coast to Salcombe, for a meeting with local councillors and an international engineering firm. For once, plastic is not on the agenda, but instead a topic that is significant to Richard’s roots as a researcher. 

"My scientific background is marine ecology, and a lot of my interests are in how you apply this knowledge of the natural world to its interactions with humans in order to get a better outcome,” he says. “One of the pieces of work we’ve been involved with over a number of years is looking at hard structures built in the marine environment, whether a wind farm or harbour or coastal defence, and how they are colonised by marine life. What the research has shown is that there tends to be an abundance of organisms on these artificial habitats but there’s low diversity, so we’ve been looking at how we might alter that ecological outcome. Today, we’re meeting to discuss the redevelopment of a quay in the estuary, and how we can consider the issue of biodiversity.” 

It was as a lecturer in benthic ecology (the ecological region at the lowest level of a body of water) that Richard first joined the University of Plymouth, back in 2001. No stranger to the rocky shorelines of Devon, a location he’d repeatedly researched in his previous position at the University of Southampton, it is inarguable that his career has flourished in the South West, thanks to its unique natural and research landscape.

“I’d been using Plymouth Sound as a base for fieldwork for a number of years because Southampton doesn’t have the sort of rocky shores I needed,” Richard says. “I was also working with the Marine Biological Association, which is one of a number of historic and world-leading research institutions in the city, so taken together, it felt a very logical step for me to move here.” 

There was a time, however, when it would have seemed thoroughly illogical that Richard should have been destined for a career in academia – and even more so that he should become “the godfather of microplastics research” as one MP said. It’s an irony not lost on him that he grew up in Nottingham, just about as far away from the sea as you can get, and that his early career was focused on selling some of the plastic products that wash up on our beaches today. 

“When I left school, I ran a retail business, quite a successful one, selling birthday cards, tinsel, Christmas crackers, Hallowe’en things,” he recalls. “So we were selling a number of single use plastic items of the type we see in the environment today! By the time I was 25, however, I decided that this wasn’t giving me the fulfilment I wanted, so I enrolled on a marine biology degree at Newcastle.” 

<p>Richard-Thompson</p>

As a mature student, Richard was determined to use his time most productively, and, after writing a number of letters to different organisations, he earned the chance to spend his first summer vacation volunteering at a marine laboratory in Australia. For his second, he organised an expedition with two other students to East Africa, looking at commercially collected sea shells.  

“I saw that there were opportunities that I hadn’t had before,” says Richard. “And what I really took from university was the interaction with people who were studying the environment from different aspects. They were motivated and passionate, and that came through from the lectures and projects we did. You get a bug for that passion, and that was certainly quite different to working in a business environment where the main motivation is profit. 

“But at that stage I really wasn’t convinced that it was going to be a career for me. It’s such a competitive field, and it probably didn’t help that I was looking for PhDs in tropical areas, because that was what excited me. I applied for a number and didn’t get any of them.”  

After graduating, Richard worked as a labourer on building sites for a year, before finally landing a PhD in marine ecology at the University of Liverpool in 1992. Based at their marine station on the Isle of Man, Richard’s work was to be on the interactions and dynamics between microscopic algae and molluscs, such as limpets. And it was during this time that the issue of marine plastic pollution began to coalesce in his mind.

He recalls: “I’d first become aware of the issue of plastic accumulating as litter on beaches during my time at Newcastle, when I conducted some experiments on biodegradable plastic bags, one of which I still have today and is perfectly usable! But it was during my PhD that I started to get involved in beach cleans. As I was training to be a scientist, I was interested in the data, and in the first year, we collected 20,000 items, all of which I logged on a spreadsheet. And two things struck me. The first was the scale: we were using a pickup truck to collect the sacks of litter and take them back to the lab, and after the first run we’d maybe gone 10 metres along the beach – and there were 15 more beaches to go. I couldn’t believe how far the rubbish stretched; we could barely scratch the surface! On an island in the middle of the Irish Sea, which doesn’t have a particularly big population, we’d got all of this stuff, and that was shocking.

“The other thing that struck me was that the data sheets completely neglected what was the most abundant type of plastic – the really small pieces, the fragments. The volunteers would go for a large trophy item – a tyre, fishing net, a crate – but would ignore the smaller stuff. And that set me the challenge I wanted to address: what was the smallest piece of plastic on the beach? It was a question we didn’t answer until 2004.”

Lost at Sea: Where Is All the Plastic? was that answer. Funded by a Leverhulme Trust grant, and published in Science over a Bank Holiday weekend, when it landed, it changed everything. By the time Richard got into his office on the Tuesday, he had received dozens messages from journalists, and before that morning was out, he’d recorded interviews for the Today programme, and the BBC World Service.

It transformed a sideline into the main focus of his career, something that has accelerated with every passing year. And, through successive research grants and subsequent publications, it has catapulted Richard into the realm of policy and public engagement. He’s made a number of appearances before government select committees, including the one for environment that paved the way for legislation preventing the use of microbeads in wash-off cosmetics. He was invited to speak at senator John Kerry’s ‘Our Ocean’ conference in Washington DC in 2014, as well as other events organised by the United Nations and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. And he also contributed to The Foresight Future of the Sea report, published by the Government Office for Science, which explored the role that the UK’s scientific and technological expertise can play in understanding and providing solutions to the long-term issues affecting the sea.

“Over recent years, the world has really woken up to the global threat posed by marine litter,” Richard says. “But while recognising the problem is one thing, increasing knowledge and changing behaviours are a far greater challenge. And my concern is that there is a risk that people’s thirst for change might lead to knee-jerk reactions, and however well-intended they could have unintended consequences. Certainly nationally, if not internationally, we have policy, the public, and industry all agreeing that there is a problem and that we need to do something about it. We know the direction of travel towards potential solutions, but charting the course is much less clear. And I don’t think we can get there just by banning plastics – we have to use them more responsibly. We need guidance, and we need that to come from the academic community. The challenge is bringing together different disciplines – environmental, behavioural and material scientists, economists, and legal experts.” 

This commitment to interdisciplinary working has been – and will continue to be – key for Richard. He is quick to pay tribute to Steve Rowland, Professor of Organic Geochemistry, a ‘mentor’ figure and critical friend throughout his time at Plymouth. And he also reserves huge praise for Dr Sabine Pahl, Associate Professor in Psychology, who has introduced social and behavioural science particularly around perception and motivation for change and human wellbeing in the blue environment. 

“Sabine brings a really synergistic behavioural dimension to the plastics work, and I don’t think any other institution has that same strength,” he says. “What we are doing with colleagues is extending our reach into other disciplines, and working to secure funding for a centre that brings together those perspectives in order to supply the evidence to inform industry and policy.” 

The transcendent nature of Richard’s work and his commitment to building bridges have been recognised in the past two years, with the award of several prestigious honours. 

His OBE in 2018 for services to marine science, for example, was submitted by the Natural Environment Research Council. And his 2017 Marsh Award for Marine and Freshwater Conservation by the Zoological Society of London, was endorsed by academics from Cambridge, Oxford, Royal Holloway and Southampton. 

But what pleases him most is the fact that his team have drawn further attention to the issue of plastics in the environment.

“I think the work we have done at the University has had a really major role in raising awareness of this topic,” he says. “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, was a tipping point in the level of interest in the whole topic in the academic community and wider public. Sure, there had been work on plastics in the environment before; some in the late 60s and 70s, but only one or two papers were published per year. We are now seeing in excess of 200 papers just on microplastics.”

As we’re walking off the beach, Richard spots something in the sand and bends down to pick it up. Surprisingly, it’s not plastic, but a tiny pinkish shell.

“This is one of only two species of cowry that you find on our beaches,” he says, gently cleaning off the sand with his thumb. “We often as a family look for them, but you have to get your eye in as they can be difficult to see. Its scientific name is Trivia, which my university lecturers used to use for a good pun. In Scotland they call them John O'Groats, and my mother-in-law has collected the shells since she was a child.” 
From something so small, such a wealth of association; the marine ecologist stands before us, with the wonder of the natural environment contained in the palm of his hand.