The pioneer of microplastics discusses ways to halt their proliferation: “We cannot continue like this.”
In September of 1993, Richard Thompson was participating in a beach clean-up on the Isle of Man when he came across numerous colorful pieces on the shore. Despite his colleagues collecting various types of litter such as crisp packets, fishing rope, plastic bags, and bottles, Thompson was fixated on the fragments at his feet.
The objects were extremely small and did not belong to any specific group on the spreadsheet used by volunteers to document their discoveries. Thompson states, “However, it was evident that the tiniest items were the most prevalent on the beach.”
In the following decade, Prof Thompson acquired a PhD and became a professor of marine biology at Newcastle, Southampton, and Plymouth universities. During his free time, he frequently visited different beaches and enlisted the assistance of students in collecting numerous sand samples using tinfoil trays.
Upon returning to the laboratory, they would validate Thompson’s initial suspicion: the particles were fragments of plastic, no bigger than grains of sand, and widespread along the coastlines of the UK. This discovery revealed pollution on an unprecedented level.
“I originally pursued marine biology with the intention of focusing on turtles, dolphins, and coral reefs,” he explains. However, his primary interest shifted towards studying minuscule particles.
In a brief research conducted in 2004, together with Prof Andrea Russell from Southampton University, Thompson initially coined the term “microplastics” to refer to the particles. He proposed that as plastic pollution entered the ocean, it gradually broke down into tiny but long-lasting fragments that spread beyond its original location. He did not anticipate much attention towards his simple one-page publication.
Over the May bank holiday weekend, while we were camping, I returned to a flood of emails from journalists and a nonstop ringing phone.
The news spread rapidly to networks across the UK, Europe, and Asia. According to Russell, the story was even being talked about in the Canadian parliament shortly after its publication. His experiments had confirmed that the particles were made of plastic.
The finding led to the development of a new area of study focused on microplastics. It played a crucial role in implementing plastic bag taxes and prohibiting the use of plastic microbeads in rinse-off beauty products in various countries such as the US, New Zealand, and Canada.
Scientists are currently examining smaller pieces of plastic known as nanoplastics that enter our bloodstream, uterus, and breast milk. In certain regions, individuals consume an amount of plastic equivalent to that of a credit card each week through this means.
Thompson was later recognized as the “pioneer of microplastics” by a British politician. He also founded the International Marine Litter Research Unit in Plymouth and was invited to the House of Commons to speak about the hazards of marine litter on a regular basis.
Lately, he has been thrust into the center of global discussions aimed at creating a worldwide agreement to reduce plastic pollution. The latest round of negotiations took place in Paris in June.
Thompson believes that the UN’s proposed plastics treaty is a unique and crucial opportunity for our planet. However, he strongly disagrees with some of the suggested solutions, particularly the idea of using biodegradable plastic. He is also convinced that no amount of clean-up efforts, including his own expedition in 1993, can ultimately solve the plastic crisis.
He believes that the plastics treaty may lead to incorrect approaches and ultimately exacerbate microplastics pollution. He expresses concern about the potential consequences of making assumptions without proper understanding.
Thompson, a tall individual, exudes an infectious enthusiasm even when discussing his work on plastics. He often begins conversations by glancing at his watch, aware that once he delves into the topic, time can easily slip away.
His finding was a consequence of a failed attempt to solve a problem. Plastic was created as a viable substitute for ivory, but ended up being essential in various industries, including engineering and medicine.
However, the issue arose in the 1950s when the focus of the industry shifted towards using packaging that can only be used once. This type of packaging now makes up 40% of the total plastic production of over 400 million tonnes per year, with at least 8 million tonnes ending up in the ocean. Additionally, production rates are continuing to rise.
The flip side of this issue is the long-lasting presence of plastic in the environment. Thompson’s theory was accurate: tiny plastic particles are created from the gradual breakdown of larger objects, and they will remain for many years due to plastic’s strong resilience. This means that they can also accumulate dangerous chemicals and bacteria, which can then be ingested by marine creatures.
The fact that plastic waste was present in the ocean was already established, but it wasn’t until Thompson coined a term for the smaller versions that the global community acknowledged the magnitude of this emerging form of pollution.
“I came across [Thompson’s 2004] publication and thought to myself, ‘This is incredibly significant. Perhaps it will bring attention to the extensive presence of plastic in our oceans,'” explains Edward Carpenter, a former marine scientist who was the initial to document the existence of floating plastic debris in the Sargasso Sea back in 1972 – fragments that are most likely still present in the ocean today.
Thompson subsequently presented the initial proof that marine animals consume these particles. He also demonstrated their worldwide presence, including in the Arctic and in every sample of sand collected from numerous beaches around the world.
The proposal for a plastics agreement aims to control this influx, according to the author. The success of the agreement hinges on its coverage, including whether it should prohibit specific types of plastic or enforce regulations on the wide range of 13,000 chemicals found in common packaging materials.
Thompson’s worry is that policymakers could be swayed by overly advertised methods that are already in use, such as advanced strategies like the Ocean Cleanup, which aim to remove plastic from the ocean.
Thompson emphasizes his strong belief in the importance of cleaning up coastal pollution, but also acknowledges that relying solely on cleanups is unrealistic in addressing the significant issue of microplastics.
He explains that psychologists refer to it as “techno-optimism.” He cautions that if we’re not cautious, the general population may believe that a large device navigating through the Pacific gyre will solve all our problems, but that’s not the whole truth.
“It’s a compelling narrative – in terms of not needing to alter any of our actions.”
Likewise, the increasing availability of alternatives to plastic, such as biodegradable and bio-based materials. “I was very interested in whether this would be a solution to the issue,” Thompson states.
However, while they do offer some benefits compared to traditional plastics in terms of their impact on the environment, biodegradable plastics are not completely broken down by nature. This was a realization that Thompson had during his early research days when a bag labeled “biodegradable” was pulled up from the depths of the North Sea. “I still have it somewhere!” he exclaims, motioning to the shelves filled with files behind him.
Thanks to Thompson and his colleagues’ experiments, it has been revealed that numerous biodegradable materials require specific industrial settings in order to decompose. Furthermore, it can take several years for these materials to fully disappear in both soil and water.
“We are producing approximately 300-400 million tonnes of plastic every year. However, simply replacing it with biodegradable plastics does not solve the issues of litter, waste, and chemical pollution,” says the speaker. “It only changes the source of carbon.”
All of these actions do not alter his perception of the true threat: the direct correlation between plastic and our actions – production, consumption, and disposal – that has led to the issue. After twenty years of addressing this problem, he is now putting his attention on the root cause. “My research is very much centered on the land because the problem does not originate in the ocean; it is created by practices on land.”
During the Paris negotiations, he emphasized the need to focus on solutions that address the root cause. Speaking to representatives from 58 nations, he stated that in order to reduce the amount of plastic waste in our oceans, we must first limit its production. He also acknowledged that continuing to produce at our current rate is unsustainable and unable to be effectively managed.
He supports the recent push from treaty negotiators to reduce the use of “unnecessary, avoidable, or problematic” plastics. This could potentially include the overwhelming amount of single-use items. Thompson believes that the focus should be on purchasing the actual product rather than the packaging it comes in. He sees packaging as a crucial starting point, as it is the most prevalent type of plastic found in the oceans and often ends up escaping waste-management systems.
However, although objects covered in layers of plastic resembling Russian dolls may seem like obvious choices for reduction, there are certain plastics that serve a legitimate purpose in our daily lives and will likely continue to be used, according to Thompson. He emphasizes the importance of reducing plastic use, but for the plastic that is still necessary, he believes that the focus should be on redesigning it.
Only 10% of plastic is reused worldwide, an alarmingly small amount that can be attributed to the numerous chemicals used to create its various characteristics, colors, and shapes, which make it extremely difficult to repurpose.
“We struggle with creating products that are designed for circularity. Therefore, when people point out that only 10% of materials are being recycled, I believe the root issue lies in the initial design process,” Thompson explains.
Product designers have shared that their main focus is on creating aesthetically pleasing products rather than considering their eventual disposal.
Similar to other researchers, he contends that there should be a decrease in the use of chemical additives during plastic production, resulting in a safer end product. He uses the example of PET bottles to demonstrate how a more straightforward design allows for the possibility of recycling certain products up to 10 times.
Redesign can also soften the impact of plastic during its lifecycle. Take the problem of polymer-rich fabrics that shed plastic microfibres into the sea. Several countries now require filters on washing machines to capture these threads.
However, Thompson and his colleagues have discovered that 50% of the shedding occurs while clothes are being worn, rather than during washing. By redesigning fabric to last longer, shedding can be reduced by an impressive 80%. Thompson believes that this systemic solution could benefit the planet. He is currently researching other design obstacles, including car tires, which are a major contributor to marine microplastics.
As a scientist, Thompson is frustrated by the lack of a UN-level mechanism to communicate the latest research on plastics to governments. This information is becoming increasingly important in guiding nations towards solutions, and there is a growing scientific consensus on these matters.
He aided in creating the Scientists Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty, which is a self-governing and optional organization comprising of 200 diverse scientists from 40 nations. They are offering scientific guidance to those involved in negotiating the treaty in its absence.
The speaker believes that the use of scientific evidence has led us to where we are now and will be necessary for future progress.
What were his emotions in June as he witnessed nations uniting to acknowledge the necessity of prohibiting or controlling microplastics? Did he realize that he played a role in bringing them all together? Thompson takes a moment to reflect during our discussion. “Just thinking about it is stirring up some strong emotions,” he remarks.
After several weeks, he provides more details. He explains, “There is a substantial amount of proof that has led us to the current state with the UN treaty and the discourse on microplastics.” He continues, “But for me, it was a significant moment on a personal level because I realized that the paper from 2004 had a direct influence on where we are now.”