United Nations
Pollution from plastics is a global emergency, with evidence showing it causes disease, increases premature mortality, contaminates our oceans and waterways and subsequent marine food chain*. Emissions of plastic waste into aquatic ecosystems are projected to nearly triple by 2040 without meaningful action.
The global plastics treaty – designed to support progress towards the ambition set out within the UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 (Life Below Water) – was committed to by 170 world leaders at the United Nations Environment Assembly in March 2022. This legally binding instrument, to be established by 2024, will look to address the full life cycle of plastic including in the marine environment.

Twenty years ago there was denial that plastics presented an environmental issue. We now have that consensus exemplified in the UN Global Plastics Treaty. That’s a mandate for global change. What is critical now is that we have the same quality of independent scientific evidence to guide the way to solutions as we have had in defining the problem. The role of science is critical in addressing environmental challenges or we will repeat mistakes of the past.

Richard Thompson OBE FRSRichard Thompson OBE FRS
Director of the Marine Institute

Plymouth’s priorities

  1. Establish an independent science policy interface to deliver evidence on solutions that address plastics across the entire life cycle, bringing together environmental and material scientists, economists, behavioural psychologists and others.
  2. Measures to reduce production and consumption of plastics.
  3. Prevent plastic waste with product design that considers end-of-life from the beginning, where plastic is decided as the best application.
  4. A hazard-based approach when considering the issues associated with plastic pollution and the potential interventions.
 

Our contribution to the global plastics treaty

University of Plymouth side event at INC-4

Alternatives and substitutes: if plastics are the problem is switching to different polymers or materials the solution?

Perspectives from academia, policy and industry – a panel discussion.
Biodegradable polymers, recycled polymers, aluminium, glass, banana leaves, jute, algae and crustacean shells are all highlighted as potential alternatives and substitutes to help reduce plastic pollution. But is there clear evidence they are genuinely better and if so, in which contexts?
Friday 26 April 2024, Lunchtime, The Westin Ottawa, Canada

Find out more about this INC-4 side event

Lettuce growing in plastic mulch

INC-4: 23–29 April 2024, Ottawa, Canada

INC-4 – fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee
The fourth session of the is scheduled to take place from 23 to 29 April 2024 at the Shaw Center in Ottawa, Canada. The session will be preceded by regional consultations on 21 April 2024.
Scientists call on United States to take a positive stance to end plastic pollution
3 April 2024
Professor Richard Thompson OBE FRSis one of three signatories on a letter to United States President Joe Biden calling for independent scientific evidence to inform his country’s position on the United Nations Treaty to end Plastic Pollution. The letter, from the , thanks the President and his administration for their stance to date on plastic pollution and environmental justice. However, it also calls for any future actions and commitments to be directly linked to independent research so as to "ensure accurate, evidence-based decision making."
Professor Richard Thompson joins panel discussion at the Geneva Environment Network event on plastics
20 March 2024
Professor Richard Thompson OBE FRSjoined a panel for the launch of the Geneva Environment Network at the event: 'Climate Impact of Plastics: Global Actions to Stem Climate Change and End Plastic Pollution' representing the University and the Scientists' Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty.
Professor Richard Thompson elected as Deputy Co-ordinator of the Scientists' Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty
In January 2024 and ahead of the fourth Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4), Professor Richard Thompson was elected as Deputy Co-ordinator of the , which represents 300 scientists in 50 countries.
 
 
Professor Richard Thompson delivers an Oral Intervention on behalf of the 'Scientists Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty' at INC-3
16 November 2023
Professor Thompson delivered an oral intervention on behalf of over 300 independent scientists, to facilitate access to the best available science, including the following:
  • to consider a sectoral approach as a key requirement
  • using the example of fishing gear which requires a different approach than other plastic pollution – looking at its full life span including design, production, marking and tracking.
Professor Richard Thompson delivers oral intervention at INC-3
Professor Richard Thompson delivers oral intervention at INC-3

INC-3: 13–19 November 2023, Nairobi, Kenya

Professor Richard Thompson presents at INC-3 Side Event hosted by the Ministry of the Environment for Japan
14 November 2023
On the theme of 'Oceans and the Marine Environment, Including Transport, Ghost Fishing Gears, Dumping, Pellet Loss, and Impacts on Biodiversity', Professor Richard Thompson presented on 'The Role of Scientific Evidence to Inform Governance' at this official Side Event. Other speakers also attended from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Global Maritime Crime Programme (UNODC) and the Global Ghost Gear Initiative Ocean Conservancy.
Co-author of ‘Guidelines for Harmonizing Ocean Surface Microplastic Monitoring Methods' by the Ministry of the Environment for Japan
Announced on 13 November 2023
Professor Richard Thompson co-authored the publication that proposes ways of harmonising methodologies for monitoring microplastic densities at the ocean surface to deliver comparable results. Included is the rationale for various sample collection methods, sample handling and processing, analytical procedures, reporting requirements, and other matters necessary or desirable for harmonization.
Plymouth's research into microplastics near Mount Everest referenced by member country, Nepal
11 November 2023
During a plenary session ahead of the INC3 meeting, officials from Nepal spoke about the unique challenges the country is facing from plastic pollution and referenced the University's own research into the microplastics found high on the slopes of Mount Everest. Following this Professor Richard Thompson OBE FRS met the officials to discuss that research, and the problems such pollution causes for mountain communities and others downstream in Nepal.
Read more about our record-breaking research on plastics in the Himalayas: Microplastics in the Death Zone
Global Plastics Summit, Bangkok release their recommendations
9 November 2023
The Summit, hosted by the Economist Impact with the support of The Nippon Foundation, Minderoo Foundation, and The Pew Charitable Trusts brought together 381 participants from 56 countries, including the University of Plymouth delegation. On 9 November 2023, they released their recommendations for the forthcoming INC-3 meeting, with Professor Richard Thompson providing key input into the summit. Together, they recommended:
  • a robust science-policy interface to support negotiators in making evidence-based decisions
  • allow a diverse group of stakeholders to participate in the negotiation process more substantively
  • a strengthened focus in the treaty on the unique needs of SIDS
  • the treaty must adopt the precautionary principle regarding the health impacts of plastics and be flexible enough to continue to be tightened as the science evolves
  • negotiators must agree on the treaty’s key definitions, principles and scope at the upcoming negotiation session.
Scientists Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty respond to INC-3 Zero Draft text
3 November 2023
The International Marine Litter Unit team, as part of the Scientists Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty formally respond to the Zero Draft text of the international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including the marine environment. Their response highlighted five key requirements:
  1. time-bound, legally binding primary plastic polymer reduction targets for each Party
  2. safety, sustainability, essentiality and transparency criteria
  3. initiation of sector-specific strategies and work programmes
  4. a dedicated multilateral fund, plastic pollution fees and mandatory Extended Producer Responsibility
  5. an independent, trusted science-policy interface including expert committees under the Governing Body of the instrument.
University academics contribute to policy briefs on biodegrables and the role of chemicals and polymers
Professor Richard Thompson OBE FRS, Dr Winnie Courtene-Jones and Dr Francesca De Falco contributed to the policy brief addressing the role of biodegradable plastics and how the global plastics treaty should manage these moving forward:
Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty (2023) Policy Brief: The global plastics treaty: What is the role of bio-based plastic, biodegradable plastic and bioplastic? (possible core obligation 8).
Dr Winnie Courtene-Jones contributed to the policy brief that provides arguments on and insights into why and how plastic chemicals and polymers of concern should be integrated in the global plastics treaty:
Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty (2023) Policy Brief: Role of chemicals and polymers of concern in the global plastics treaty

INC-2: 29 May–2 June 2023, Paris, France

Plastic Pollution: a ticking time bomb?
Professor Richard Thompson and the International Marine Litter Unit team contributed to the plastic pollution report by Angèle Préville, Senator and Philippe Bolo, Deputy of the French National Assembly report, 2020.
Professor Richard Thompson presents evidence at INC-2
Director of the Marine Institute and International Marine Litter Unit, Professor Richard Thompson addresses the delegation in Paris for the second session of the to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution.
INC-2 took place from 29 May to 2 June 2023 at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Headquarters in Paris, France.
Professor Richard Thompson presenting at INC-2 in Paris for the global plastics treaty
Professor Richard Thompson presenting at INC-2 in Paris for the global plastics treaty

University of Plymouth at the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee

  • INC-3 Delegation: The Plymouth team is made up of Professor Richard Thompson OBE FRS, Dr Winnie Courtene-Jones, Dr Francesca De Falco, Dr Max Kelly, and Miss Florence Parker-Jurd.

    Plymouth's INC-3 delegation

    Professor Richard Thompson OBE FRS, Dr Winnie Courtene-Jones, Dr Francesca De Falco, Dr Max Kelly, and Miss Florence Parker-Jurd.
  • Plymouth delegation at INC-3

    Plymouth delegation at INC-3

  • Plymouth delegation at INC-3

    Plymouth delegation at INC-3

  • Professor Richard Thompson and University of Plymouth Alum, Hannah Pragnall-Rasch, Policy Specialist, Ocean Conservancy.

    Professor Richard Thompson and University of Plymouth Alum, Hannah Pragnall-Rasch, now Policy Specialist, Ocean Conservancy.

  • Professor Richard Thompson with Angèle Préville, Senator and Philippe Bolo, Deputy of the French National Assembly.

    Professor Richard Thompson with Angèle Préville, Senator and Philippe Bolo, Deputy of the French National Assembly

Pioneers of marine plastics research

‘We can’t carry on’: the godfather of microplastics on how to stop them. An interview with Professor Richard Thompson
Over two decades, the award-winning and highly-cited research and expertise of the University’s Marine Institute has informed UK and international policy to date – in turn helping to build momentum and inform the detail of future global action. The team’s 2004 landmark paper, Lost at Sea: Where is all the Plastic?, was the first to describe microplastics in the ocean, and they have continued to contribute fundamental understanding of microplastics ever since.
The International Marine Litter Research have pioneered methods for monitoring and tracking marine plastics, the effects of plastics on marine life, economies and human health and wellbeing, as well as solutions to mitigate plastic pollution.
Professor Richard Thompson
Richard Thompson, Professor of Marine Biology and Director of the University’s Marine Institute, continues to set the international agenda on research into the causes and effects of marine litter.

Evidence-informed solutions

Our research focuses on understanding the accumulation and harm caused by marine litter, and the potential solutions to this global crisis.

Getty image 872418096 tyres

TYRE-LOSS: Lost at Sea – where are all the tyre particles?

Environmental Issue: Underwater image of Plastic in the Ocean. The location here is Phi Phi Islands, Krabi, Thailand.

PISCES: a systems analysis approach to reduce plastic waste in Indonesian societies

Agriculture is project to be one of the industries contributing biodegradable plastics to the environment (Credit Getty Images)

BIO-PLASTIC-RISK: biodegradable bioplastics – assessing environmental risk

International Marine Litter Research Unit

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.
Furthering our understanding of litter on the environment and defining solutions.
Marine litter