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Professor Richard Thompson
Professor Richard Thompson
School of Marine Science and Engineering, Plymouth University
Professor Richard Thompson's research focuses on three main topics (1) the effects of plastic debris in the marine environment (2) the ecology and conservation of shallow water habitats and (3) habitat modification to enhance biodiversity of marine engineering such as coastal defences and off-shore renewable energy devices.
He has been working on the effects of plastic in the marine environment for over a decade. In 2004 his group showed that waters around the north-east Atlantic had become contaminated by microscopic fragments of plastic or ‘microplastic’ and that the abundance of this material had increased significantly over the last 40 years.
These microplastic fragments some of which were smaller than the diameter of a human hair appear to have formed by the breakdown of everyday items such as plastic bags, bottles, rope and materials used in packaging. His group is at the forefront of research to establish the environmental consequences of this newly described form of debris.
"We know about the problems of plastic debris, particularly in the oceans where it tends to be very conspicuous. It accumulates at the sea surface but is also found on the sea bed, the deep sea and on shorelines."
Intact items of plastic debris and larger plastic fragments are now common on many shoreline throughout the world.
But as plastic does not biodegrade it is unable to be broken down into its constituent elements by natural processes.
If plastic ends up trapped in an ocean gyre, it breaks down over time by sunlight and wave action, to become smaller and smaller pieces of plastic, eventually microscopic in size. These then pose a danger to marine life who mistake the plastic for food.