eXXpedition Round Britain will be launching in August from the Marine Station at the University of Plymouth – one of the global leaders in research into the causes and effects of marine litter. Richard Thompson, Professor of Marine Biology and Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit, explains the reason more knowledge and action is needed:
Plastics are an integral part of our daily lives – we use them at work and at home, when we travel and when we shop. But in recent years, there has been growing awareness of the environmental impacts when these items reach the end of their useful lives and how we can influence behaviours entrenched over generations within our throwaway society.
If you look at the items that become marine litter, many are single-use packaging and we see plastics as offering disposable and quick-fix solutions. They are designed to look good, to make something stand out on the shelf, but we need to ensure the value within these plastic items can be recovered when they reach the end of their functional life.
In other cases, such as the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetics, the actual benefits are questionable right from the beginning. Our research, recently incorporated into a report by the UK government, estimated between 4,600 and 94,500 microbeads could be released from an exfoliant in a single use, and they are highly likely to enter domestic waste water, pass through sewage treatment and filter into aquatic environments.
Educating the general public is undoubtedly one part of the solution, but this needs more than simply a change in human behaviour and that is why we are working with a variety of industries to try and develop new approaches to help reduce the amount of waste and litter we generate. This is a different kind of environmental challenge to many of the issues we have faced both in the past and at present, but by developing a greater understanding of the problems, we can hopefully find ways to continue reaping the undoubted benefits that plastics bring without the detrimental effect on our environment.