A Startling Discovery on the Isle of Man In September 1993, Richard Thompson, while participating in a beach clean-up on the Isle of Man, made a startling discovery. Amidst the usual debris of plastic waste, Thompson’s attention was drawn to countless tiny, colorful fragments resembling sand, which he later identified as microplastics.
Decade-Long Research Unearths Plastic Peril Thompson’s fascination with these minuscule particles grew into a decade-long journey, during which he collected and analyzed sand samples from various UK beaches. His findings were alarming – the particles were omnipresent and predominantly plastic, indicating a new scale of pollution.
The Birth of ‘Microplastics’ In 2004, Thompson, with his colleague Andrea Russell, published a study coining the term “microplastics.” This landmark research suggested that larger plastic pieces gradually fragmented into smaller particles, spreading further across the marine environment. The paper, initially considered modest, quickly captured global attention, sparking widespread media interest and parliamentary discussions.
Impact and Recognition Thompson’s work not only led to the emergence of a new field in microplastics research but also played a crucial role in legislative changes. His findings contributed to the implementation of plastic bag taxes and bans on plastic microbeads in cosmetics in various countries. He earned the title “godfather of microplastics,” establishing the International Marine Litter Research Unit at Plymouth University and frequently advising the House of Commons on marine litter issues.
Advocating for Effective Solutions As Thompson finds himself at the forefront of international negotiations for a global treaty to reduce plastic pollution, he remains critical of certain proposed solutions. He strongly argues against the reliance on biodegradable plastics and mere clean-up efforts, emphasizing the need for more substantive measures to tackle the root causes of plastic pollution.
The Invention and Pervasiveness of Plastic Reflecting on his findings, Thompson notes that while plastic was initially created as a sustainable alternative to materials like ivory, its use in single-use packaging since the 1950s has led to significant environmental challenges. Today, single-use plastics constitute a large portion of the over 400 million tonnes of plastic produced annually, with at least 8 million tonnes ending up in oceans.
Microplastics: A Persistent Threat Thompson’s research confirmed that microplastics are the result of larger plastic items breaking down over time. These particles, due to plastic’s durability, persist in the environment for decades, absorbing toxins and impacting marine life. His studies revealed the global distribution of microplastics, including their presence in remote regions like the Arctic and on beaches worldwide.
Richard Thompson’s work has been pivotal in highlighting the extent and severity of microplastic pollution in our oceans. His insights and advocacy continue to shape the global response to one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time.