How pioneering microplastic research at Plymouth ignited global ocean action

Deborah Kelly Spillane
July 27, 2022

At the end of July, the competing catamarans are back in Plymouth for the Great Britain Sail Grand Prix. Like so many coastal communities all over the world, protecting the marine environment is high on the local agenda – and plastic is one of the primary perpetrators of ocean pollution.

Smeaton's Tower in Plymouth

Nestled on the southwest coast of England, Plymouth Sound is beloved for its beauty and its maritime heritage. The natural amphitheatre serves as the perfect racetrack for the Grand Prix, so the return of the F50 catamarans for Season 3 was almost expected. As a purpose-based sport, taking better care of the ocean is something that Sail GP is always eager to promote, and with the ocean playing such an important role in Plymouth, it’s unsurprising that there is keen local focus on its health.

It’s widely understood that marine litter is a massive global environmental issue that can have deadly consequences for the living creatures that call the ocean home – as well as negatively affecting our economies and our health. More than 700 species are impacted by the growing amount of litter in our oceans, and this includes commercially valuable fish and shellfish. Most of the ocean litter is plastic – in fact, it’s estimated that up to 12 million tons of plastic litter enters the ocean ever year! So it’s clear that action needs to be taken – urgently and globally. This is something that the University of Plymouth’s Marine and Sustainable Earth Institutes is very focused understanding better, as well as using a whole-system approach to effectively address climate change. Using evidence-based research across disciplines, the researchers at the University investigate local environmental priorities in parallel with national and international goals. And the results from this research is used to instigate global action. Playing a vital part in this research is the International Marine Litter Research Unit.

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Microplastics – first discovered by a team based in Plymouth

Professor Richard Thompson OBE is the director of the Marine Institute at the University of Plymouth. In 2004, he and his team prepared the first scientific paper that described how microplastic particles have been amassing in the oceans since the 1960s, and further research and additional papers documented that they are accumulating in large quantities in far flung locations such as the Arctic and the deep sea, and that are ingested by commercially important fish – that ultimately end up in our bellies!    

The International Marine Litter Research Unit’s pioneering research in the field of microplastics has guided industry, education, awareness campaigns and provided evidence for government all around the world and international organisations such as the United Nations.

The One Ocean Foundation

Backed by an independent scientific committee and working with a range of institutions, research centres and universities, the One Ocean Foundation aims to accelerate solutions to ocean issues. As a leader in ocean advocacy, the One Ocean Foundation studies marine data and reaches out to companies and leaders to create more accountability. With their One Ocean Disclosure Initiative, a science-based framework and methodology, they are investigating the role of companies across all industries in addressing ocean challenges, focusing on the pressures – direct and indirect – on marine ecosystems, the level of awareness in the business community, and the main (technological and organisational) response.

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Picture: The Denmark SailGP Team racing on Plymouth Sound with spectators watching from the Hoe.

The University of Plymouth – using new knowledge to unlock global action

Once again in 2022, the University of Plymouth remained ranked as one of the world’s top five universities for marine research and teaching in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings.

“These results reinforce our long-term commitment to sustainability, our climate and the marine environment. Our whole systems approach is enabling our researchers to identifying the major challenges facing our planet, and providing the connections through which they can be enacted across industry, policy and society,” explained Professor Judith Petts CBE, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Plymouth and lead of Universities UK’s Climate Task and Finish Group. “By embedding sustainability practices in our courses, we are generating the leaders of tomorrow and empowering them to deliver public and environmental good.”  

Plymouth Sound – the ideal battleground for a purpose-driven sport

As a climate positive sport with a goal to become the world’s most sustainable and purpose-driven one, SailGP’s return to Plymouth seems very fitting. In fact, the sport will mark the first anniversary of its Impact League while in British waters. Unique in sport, the Impact League is a second leader board that runs alongside the SailGP Season Championship. This leader board scores each team for their positive actions to reduce their footprint and help accelerate innovation and inclusivity in the sport. The winner of the Impact League is crowned alongside the Season Champion, and earns valuable funding for its purpose partner.

Choosing purpose partners with a focus on ocean health is a priority for most of the SailGP teams, and the current leaders of the Impact League, the Denmark SailGP Team presented by ROCKWOOL, is no exception. Collaborating with One Ocean Foundation as part of the Impact League initiative, the team actively focuses on analysing, tracking and reducing the carbon and plastic footprint of their activities throughout Season 3. The Danish team will also collect a series of plankton samples in every SailGP venue to create a first-ever water health map of the 11 Sail GP race tracks. The samples will be analysed to review the presence of pollutants, including microplastics, to monitor the real-time health of the ocean at each location.

Time to regenerate our ocean

Our oceans cover 70 percent of Earth’s surface, provide over half our oxygen and absorb 50 times as much carbon dioxide as our atmosphere. In coastal towns such as Plymouth, the ocean lies at the very heart of the community, playing an important role in the economy and providing food, work and leisure opportunities. For a sport like Sail GP, the ocean is their race track, where all the action takes place. Shared and valued by us all, we need to share responsibility for our ocean, and take action when new research outlines new ways that we can help protect them.

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