Professor Richard Thompson has spent a career researching plastics. Here, he chats to Phil Harris Executive Director at Brown Shipley, about The Turner Twins’ Atlantic expedition, microplastics in the cosmetic industry and finding solutions for a macro problem.
Think of campaigns around plastic and what springs to mind? Perhaps single-use carrier bags that cost 10 pence in UK supermarkets. Plastic straws, now banned in many countries around the world. Or large-scale beach clean-ups in places like Bali. While these are all high-profile, headline-grabbing initiatives that have made a difference, what’s equally important are individual eco-minded acts such as the recent Blue Pole project, orchestrated by professional adventurers Hugo and Ross Turner, aka The Turner Twins, earlier this summer. The pair set sail to the most remote point of the Atlantic on an emission-free, hydrogen-powered yacht, conducting a plastic survey to support Plymouth University’s International Marine Litter Research Unit, which was founded by Professor Richard Thompson OBE.
‘There can be real challenges in getting access to remote parts of the world to take samples and gain evidence as to the accumulation of plastics,’ explains Richard. ‘Sometimes an opportunity comes along like this where someone else is going and can collect data. What we’re looking at are the accumulation of larger items of plastic that are clearly visible to the naked eye, as well as working with satellite systems to see if we can see it from space. This is important because it helps us to ground truth with observations on the sea surface. There are mathematical models of where the plastic might be, based on ocean circulation, but we need to understand how concentrations vary between the shoreline of the UK and further out into the Atlantic and the impact that might have. Knowing where the plastic is doesn’t solve the problem but it helps to raise awareness.’
Raising awareness, believes Phil Harris, Executive Director at Brown Shipley, is the first step to shaping change. ‘The Turner Twins talk about how if we all change one percent for the better, for a more sustainable future, it can make an impact. As a bank it’s about taking small steps: supporting the Turner Twins’ Atlantic trip, which aligns with our values at Brown Shipley; eliminating single-use plastic within our business; and raising the conversation with clients about what they want their legacy to be within the world. Increasingly that conversation comes round to how they can make the planet better.’
Science has been instrumental in drawing attention to the plastics problem. While the Turner Twins’ project concentrates on large items of plastic, much of Richard’s career has focused around those plastics that are infinitely smaller: microplastics. He first coined the term in 2004, in an academic paper titled ‘Lost at Sea: Where is all the Plastic?’ which stemmed from voluntary beach cleans he organised with the Marine Conservation Society. ‘During that time, I made a chance observation, which was that the very small bits of plastic weren’t being recorded as data or cleaned from the shore. They were being overlooked completely. I began wondering what the smallest bits of plastic in the environment were,’ recalls Richard, who believes that a richer life is trying to leave the world and everything in it, in as good a place as he can. ‘The title of the paper came from that fact that despite an increase in plastic production from five million tonnes per year in the 1950s to over 100 million tonnes at the time I was doing the work in the 1990s, what we weren’t seeing in the data from the beach cleans was the same litter in the environment. One of the questions I asked was, has the abundance of the small stuff increased?’
To find the answer, Richard looked at archive samples, originally collected to study plankton, that hadn’t been previously opened. ‘By doing this, we were able to show a significant increase in the abundance of microplastics over time. We looked at distribution, accumulation and the likelihood of sea creatures eating them.’ Within a few years of the paper bring published, the term microplastics was incorporated into the marine strategy framework.
Perhaps Richard’s piece of work that has had the most impact, influencing policy worldwide, was on microbeads found in cosmetics. ‘For that, we didn’t need to look at the sea, we just went to the supermarket,’ he quips of the 2015 project which he worked on with PHD student Imogen Napper. What the pair found was that almost 100,000 microbeads – added as bulking agents and abrasives – could be released in every single application of a facial scrub or shower gel. The findings led to a UK ban on microbeads in products such as these. ‘We worked with psychologists in behavioural research who showed that consumers were pretty shocked when they realised that they were cleansing themselves with bits of plastic.’ From an industry point of view, understandably there is often a nervousness about any change they might make to a product, especially if it’s selling well, because the consumer might not like that change. ‘I can recall a conversation with three high street supermarkets about changing to recycled packaging and one was worried that the consumer might not like the appearance of it. Another said, the consumer is crying out for this, all we need to do is explain why it’s different,’ he continues.
Phil, who studied psychology before moving to a career in finance, agrees that educating people about plastic pollution and broader sustainability issues is key. ‘Information is an incredibly powerful thing. If you tell people what their investment is doing, that can help shape the way they view the world and the way that they use their money,’ he says, citing a richer life as having as much of a positive impact on the planet as he can. ‘When trying to build a sustainable portfolio, we can ask clients whether they want to exclude certain investments, such as tobacco, we can also use our collective power at AGMs to vote through sustainable policies.’ In many cases, Evironmental, Social and Governance (ESG) investment is not the first thing clients think of. ‘There’s a lot of conversation around psychology and behaviour because sometimes you need to encourage people to question what they want to do with their money and why, to think about what they could try and change.’
One of the biggest challenges that has faced Richard throughout his career is funding. ‘Some of these questions we’re asking fall between the gaps that a lot of conventional funding of science covers,’ he says. ‘If you receive funding to do a project it makes it instantly easier to achieve but at the same time, you’re constrained by timelines of the funders. The evidence about microbeads in cosmetics, for instance, only came about because of independent funding. If we’d written it as a proposal and submitted it to a research council we would have been unlikely to have got the money.’
These days, the main focus of Richard’s work has moved on from raising awareness to finding the right solutions. ‘Now there’s a broad agreement from the public, industry and policymakers that there is a problem with the current levels of plastic accumulating, which wasn’t the case when I first started on this over 20 years ago. There’s a thirst for solutions. The science has been really important in raising awareness; now we need that evidence to help work out the best way forward. If we don’t have the evidence, we’ll jump at the wrong solutions and that’s the bit that concerns me the most,’ he says. ‘There’s no silver bullet but it’s very clear to me that solutions might vary between counties, between Europe and North America, where there is sophisticated waste management, and developing nations where infrastructure is lacking.’
One obvious strategy is for producers to take more responsibility about what happens to a product at the end of its lifecycle. ‘I think that making sure at the design stage that thought has been given to what happens beyond the lifetime of a product is part of the overarching solution,’ says Richard. ‘If I talk to product designers, they tell me that wasn’t in the brief. They are usually asked to design a product that functions, that’s attractive to the consumer but what happens when the consumer has finished with it is not considered. It’s hardly surprising that we’ve got a whole range of items for which there are no available waste management solution.’
However, the good news is that Richard is hopeful about the future. ‘In my mind, this is a problem that is solvable. With most environmental challenges the thing that’s problematic in the environment is directly coupled to something we want: the long-haul flight, construction along coastlines, taking fish out of the sea. All these are directly linked to potential damage but if you think about the benefits that come from plastic, virtually all of them can be achieved without this emission to the environment. The impact and benefit are decoupled; it’s just about using the material responsibly.’
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