NERC Impact Awards 2018: 4,000 tonnes of microbeads no longer released into ocean

8 November 2018

Leading British microplastics researchers have been shortlisted for a NERC Impact Award to honour the substantial benefits their pioneering research has provided for society.

Tamara Galloway by the seashore

Professor Tamara Galloway

Professor Tamara Galloway at Exeter University and a team of researchers including Professor Richard Thompson OBE at the University of Plymouth and Dr Penelope Lindeque at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, started looking into the effect that tiny pieces of plastic could be having on marine life at a time when other experts remained sceptical.

The team predicted that microplastics, from sources like larger plastic pollution and microfibers from clothing, would be widespread in the ocean and the marine food chain - and went on to prove it.

Now widely regarded as top of their field, the team's research has had a lasting impact on laws, such as supporting the UK ban on using microbeads in the manufacture of products, that came into force this January and means that 4,000 tonnes of plastic microbeads per year will not be released into the marine environment. The research has helped to raise awareness about the pervasive issue of microplastics among the public and the academic community, including advising on the seminal BBC series Blue Planet II.

Tamara and her colleagues are now investigating how we can make the plastic economy more sustainable by closing the production-to-waste loop, so that used plastic is recycled back to the source and none escapes out to sea as pollution.

Read more about Professor Galloway's work in the Planet Earth article From "trivial issue" to prime time TV: A researcher's journey through plastic.

The 2018 Impact Awards celebrate NERC funded scientists, as individuals or teams, whose work has had a big impact on the economy or society in the UK or internationally. Professor Galloway and her team are shortlisted in the Societal Impact category. The winners will be announced at ceremony at the Natural History Museum on Monday 3 December.

This was a team application led by Professor Tamara Galloway, with Professor Brendan Godley, University of Exeter, Dr Ceri Lewis, University of Exeter, Dr Matt Cole, University of Exeter Professor Richard Thompson, University of Plymouth and Dr Penelope Lindeque, Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

NERC Associate Director of Research Ned Garnett said:

A decade ago, the word 'microplastics' was a little used term and interest in their effects on the ocean environment was limited even among researchers. Now, the problem of our discarded plastics being broken down and polluting the ocean is well-known. These researchers have been instrumental to shedding light on the harmful effects of microplastics in the ocean, and their NERC-funded work has directly influenced legislation to help tackle this. We are proud to recognise this achievement in the 2018 NERC Impact Awards shortlist.

Professor Sir Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter, said:

I am absolutely delighted that Tamara has been shortlisted for this prestigious award. The world-leading research carried out by Tamara, and her team of colleagues, has made a crucial difference in our understanding of how detrimental microplastic pollution is to the environment.

Her work, in the lab and also in the public sphere, has seen public awareness, and as a result action, drastically build in a short space of time. It has also been a crucial driver in the recent ban of the use of microplastics in cosmetics, which is a remarkable achievement. More widely, it is also playing a significant role in challenging us all to think about how we use plastic in our everyday lives, and find ways to reduce its use. The shortlisting for the NERC Impact Award is richly deserved, and we congratulate Tamara on her success.

Professor Judith Petts, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Plymouth, said:

Richard is a genuine pioneer of marine science, and I am immensely proud of his continued achievements. For more than a decade, his research has set the agenda others have followed and policymakers have responded to. And while plastic pollution is currently high in public consciousness, he continues to look for new and innovative ways to ensure that enthusiasm has lasting societal and environmental benefits. He is one of the University's outstanding global ambassadors and this nomination is just reward for his work.

Professor Tamara Galloway says:

We all have to make choices about how we use plastics and it isn't always easy to do the right thing. Plastics are in such a huge range of products - from mascara to coffee cups - that it can feel impossible to make a difference, but we can. The passion that drives my research is that I want to protect the environment. I want to protect it for my children, and for future generations.

The research that we submitted for the NERC Impact Award has shown that microplastics are present in the oceans and in a wide array of marine creatures where they can have a harmful effect. In some of our early papers we were able to show that marine mussels do in fact ingest plastic with their food. We used special florescent techniques to show that, once eaten, those tiny pieces of plastic could be taken up 'across the gut' meaning that, when the mussels are eaten by larger predators, the plastic could be passed up through the marine food chain, ultimately ending in us.

It is vitally important that we tackle the issue by preventing plastic waste from accumulating in the environment. We need to make the supply chain circular rather than the current linear model, which means usefully re-using the plastic products we make. We need to find alternative materials that can be produced cheaply and, crucially, don't break down into particles or chemicals that can cause harm to the environment.

Our research was used to support a ban on microbeads in the UK. Microbeads are the tiny pieces of plastic that are added to a number of different consumer products, things like shower gels and different cosmetics, and what this means is that 4,000 tonnes of plastic microbeads will not be released into the environment because that law has been bought in, equating to many billions of tiny pieces of plastic.

The public interest globally in plastic pollution has grown phenomenally since the microbeads ban. We are really hoping we can use all of that publicity in a really positive way, and drive some change to use materials that are safer by design, so that we get all the benefits of plastic, but we don't waste so much of it by throwing it away needlessly into the marine environment.

Professor Thompson OBE, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth, adds:

Since our first study describing microplastics was published in 2004, the science of plastic pollution in our oceans has changed almost beyond recognition. Funding from NERC and others has played a crucial role in that and having robust scientific information not only on the problem, but also around the solutions is essential to help inform change.

Research conducted here at the University of Plymouth has helped unite scientific evidence from across the disciplines and in particular the social and behavioural sciences which will be fundamental to catalysing societal change.

More plastic has been produced in the last seven years than in all of the last century. Through greater awareness of the problem, the wider world is waking up to this global challenge and the importance of taking action now.

A key challenge now is in evidencing the most appropriate solutions and this will require us to continue working across disciplines to help ensure plastics are used responsibly; achieving the societal benefits they can bring without the current environmental and economic impacts.

Dr Penelope Lindeque, Lead Scientist of the Microplastic Research Team at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, said:

We're absolutely delighted that the work our microplastic team have undertaken over the past 10 years at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, in collaboration with Plymouth University and the University of Exeter, has been recognised by NERC. We have disseminated our results on the distribution, fate and impact of microplastics in the marine environment to a wide audience, from school children to government, and have been overwhelmed by the uptake of the issue of plastic pollution and the impact of our research. We're extremely excited to be shortlisted for the NERC impact award and are very much looking forward to the event and meeting the other highly regarded shortlistees from all categories.

Further information

Ione Bingley
Press and Communications Officer
01793 411616


1. NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is part of UK Research & Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.

2. The University of Exeter is a Russell Group university that combines world-class research with very high levels of student satisfaction. Exeter is ranked 14th in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2018 and 14th in The Guardian University Guide 2019. In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, the University ranked 16th nationally, with 98% of its research rated as being of international quality, while in 2017, Exeter was awarded a gold rating in the Teaching Excellence Framework assessment. Exeter was named The Times and The Sunday Times Sports University of the Year 2015-16, in recognition of excellence in performance, education and research. Exeter was The Sunday Times University of the Year 2012-13. The University launched its flagship Living Systems Institute in 2016, a world-class, interdisciplinary research community that will revolutionise the diagnosis and treatment of diseases. This follows recent investments of more than £350 million worth of new facilities across its campuses in recent years; including landmark new student services centres - the Forum in Exeter and The Exchange on the Penryn Campus in Cornwall, together with world-class new facilities for Biosciences, the Business School and the Environment & Sustainability Institute.

3. Microplastics is a term first used in its current context in Professor Thompson's seminal research paper published in Science in 2004.