Plastic pollution and the planet

Every Sunday night for the past few weeks, millions of viewers have tuned in to watch the BBC’s Blue Planet II. The programme, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, has helped to shine a spotlight on many of the fascinating creatures and features that lie within our oceans. But it has also enhanced public awareness of some of the threats facing them – both in the short and long term.

Here in the UK, scientists have for years been saying that more needs to be done to combat the problems posed by marine litter and microplastics. And the Government has taken notice, with several committee inquiries and the recent Budget announcement examining potential policy measures to reduce plastic waste.

But it is only by creating a sea change in public ways of thinking that we can bring about a positive change for our environment. As well as carrying out research into the sources and impacts of plastic pollution, that is something that for many years we have highlighted as being critical to achieve change.

In 2004, my team were the first to use the word microplastics to describe the microscopic fragments of manmade products in a research publication, it was not a word that many would have comprehended. After all, these fragments can measure a fraction of a millimetre in length, and be less than the width of a human hair.

Individually, it is perhaps hard to see the potential harm they could cause. But when you consider some estimates suggest there are five trillion of these particles floating in our oceans, it becomes a different story.

Our research has shown these items are now everywhere in the oceans, from our most visited coastlines to the remotest parts of the deep seas. It has also shown them in around one third of some 500 fish we examined from the English Channel. We have also shown some of the ways these particles can get into the marine environment.

A washing machine, for example, can release up to 750,000 fibres per wash load, many of which may not be captured by water treatment systems. While a single application of some cosmetic products can contain almost 100,000 plastic microbeads. A whole bottle can contain almost 3million. 

These illustrations are merely the tip of the iceberg, demonstrating how our everyday lives and activities relate to the problems.

Professor Richard Thompson says:

In the UK, scientists have for years been saying that more needs to be done to combat the problems posed by marine litter and microplastics. But it is only by creating a sea change in public ways of thinking that we can bring about a positive change

Read more about the International Marine Litter Research Unit

Progress, however, is being made. In October 2015, the Government introduced a 5p levy on plastic bags and industry figures showed it prompted a substantial reduction in use. And in 2016, the government indicated it would work to introduce a ban on cosmetic microbeads. But legislation alone cannot solve the problem.

It would also be impractical to suggest the way to address the issue of fibres getting into the environment from washing machines would be to ban people from washing their clothes.

The problem needs to be tackled right from the design stage so that we manufacture products with proper consideration of the environmental impact during production, use and disposal. So, in short, we need to extend producer awareness and responsibility.

But what I would also say is that plastics are not the enemy here that some suggest. They are lightweight, versatile, durable materials that have the potential to bring many societal and environmental benefits. The problem is in how we have chosen to use plastics.

Global production of plastics now exceeds 300 million tonnes per annum. But a sizeable amount of that, some 40 per cent, is single-use items such as packaging which have a short life in service but potentially centuries of persistence as waste and litter.

There needs to be a much greater focus on design especially for end-of-life recovery by recycling.

As consumers we have had almost six decades of training to regard end-of-life plastics as throwaway disposable items of no value – so it’s not surprising some escape to the environment as litter.

The irony is that plastics, as a material, are on the whole highly compatible with recycling, if the products are designed to ensure value can readily and economically be recovered – giving value to end of life plastic rather than designing it to merely become waste.

Our research has shown that litter can have a negative effect on human well-being. So we need broader recognition along the supply chain that litter is not only an aesthetic problem, but that it can cause much more serious and persistent environmental damage.

Understanding the repercussions that can be caused by our throwaway culture has to be one of the main goals as we work to reduce contamination in our oceans.

Marine organisms can shred a carrier bag into 1.75 million pieces

"An estimated 120 million tonnes of single-use plastic items – such as carrier bags – are produced each year and they are one of the main sources of plastic pollution. They already represent a potential hazard to marine life, but this research shows species might also be contributing to the spread of such debris. It further demonstrates that marine litter is not only an aesthetic problem but has the potential to cause more serious and persistent environmental damage." Professor Richard Thompson

Read the University of Plymouth news release

Read the Daily Mail marine pollution article

A worldwide problem

Marine litter is a global environmental problem with items of debris now contaminating habitats from the poles to the equator, from the sea surface to the deep sea. This litter has negative consequences for wildlife, for economies and on human health. Over 700 species, including commercially important fish and shellfish, are known to encounter marine litter in the environment. The vast majority of the litter found on shorelines, at the sea surface and that affecting marine life is plastic, and it has been estimated that up to 12 million tons of plastic litter could be entering the ocean every year. There are solutions, but there is an urgent need for action.

At the forefront of marine research

The International Marine Litter Research Unit is proud to stand at the forefront of research in this area. In 2004 our team was the first to reveal the widespread occurrence of microscopic particles of plastic debris at the sea surface and on shorelines – pieces which we described as microplastics. We have published numerous scientific papers and reports on this topic, have advised governments and international organisations worldwide and we continue to research not only the extent of the problem, but also the solutions.

Our mission

The International Marine Litter Research Unit has a mission – to further our understanding of the impacts of litter on the environment and society, and to identify the solutions and the pathways necessary to achieve them.

Discovering microplastics

In 2004, Professor Richard Thompson OBE and his team showed that microplastic particles have accumulated in oceans since the 1960s and are now present worldwide. The International Marine Litter Research Unit described the accumulation of fragments of plastic debris in the oceans and much of its focus is on these microplastics. 

Our work has shown that microplastic debris now contaminates shorelines worldwide; that they are present in substantial quantities in remote locations such as the deep and the Arctic. A range of marine organisms including commercially important species can ingest these pieces and laboratory studies have shown there is potential for this to lead to harmful effects.

Former US President, Barack Obama, signed a bill outlawing the sale and distribution of toothpaste and exfoliating or cleansing products containing microbeads which are a type of microplastic. Our work on this topic has helped inform governments around the world. We submitted evidence to the UK Houses of Parliament in relation to the Environmental Audit Committee enquiry on microplastics.

Expertise

Our findings are underpinned by research conducted by the team at the University of Plymouth and in collaboration with other leading scientists worldwide. This expertise has guided industry, informed educational and artistic initiatives that raise awareness, and has provided evidence for government agencies and international organisations such as the United Nations.

Careers in marine biology

Work opportunities for trained marine biologists exist worldwide within regulatory bodies, government agencies, conservation organisations, environmental consultancies, aquaculture, and fisheries management. Many graduates progress directly to a PhD.

MRes Marine Biology offers a range of relevant experiences that enable you to progress to careers within the public or private sector.