Turn off the plastic tap, says expert

'Godfather of micro plastics' Richard Thompson highlights link between rising plastic production and fossil fuel industry in recent talk.

Single-use plastic and an obsession with convenience means plastic production is set to treble within a decade and account for an increasing percentage of the world’s oil production.

That was the message from marine biologist and the so-called ‘godfather of micro plastics’ Richard Thompson, who was speaking at Plymouth University as part of a new exhibition on marine pollution.

Thompson, whose paper published in the journal Science in 2004 is largely credited with sparking global awareness of micro plastics, said the material already accounts for eight per cent of the world’s oil production.

“It’s estimated that the percentage will be much higher by 2025. It’s not an environmental problem that’s on its way out, it’s getting worse. There will be a threefold increase in a decade,” he said.

Thompson stressed that it is the linear usage of plastic that is the problem, rather than the material itself, and said a mindset of ‘reuse’, as well as efficient designing, could help close the loop.

Micro plastic
An average facial wash was found to contain 2.8 million micro plastic particles. 

“The wider problem is our linear use of resource. If products were designed efficiently, their lives could be much more circular. If we can achieve that, it would decouple us from the need for carbon coming in via oil and plastic.

“We need to condition ourselves out of convenience. I certainly feel like in a country like ours, why on earth do we need bottled water? Take a flask of water like you’d take a raincoat if it was raining,” said Thompson.

Despite the vast amounts of litter in the ocean, Thompson said any future investment should be in stopping single-use plastic production and looking for alternatives, over clean up efforts.

“The bath is over-flowing and we’re doing a lot of mopping the floor. We need to invest in turning off the tap, not in the clean up, which takes 95 per cent of spend at the moment,” he added.

Thompson, who was an awarded an OBE in 2018 for services to marine science, has published studies on micro plastics that included finding that 700 species of marine mammal have encountered plastic, and a study, conducted by a PhD student, that found that one facial scrub contained up to 2.8 million plastic particles.  


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  1. Great post!

    I guess if you look at the bigger picture it all comes down to money and profits. The capitalist system means companies are in competition with each other to come up with the next or “new” product where the customer is lured into buying something because it’s better than a previous product (or better than the competitors’ product).

    I just can’t believe that the companies who produced microbeads didn’t stop to think about where these would end up.

    As consumers, who would have realised that this was plastic you were exfoliating with?

    The capitalist system will never work as it’s impossible to have endless growth on a finite planet.

    We need a new way and we need it fast.

    1. Thanks for your feedback chrisj – sustainability needs to be at the heart of what any business done, and built into their business model rather than added on as ‘greenwashing’. Customers are now being more questioning, and companies and will have to respond to this if we consume less, and use our buying power support the changes in production we want to see,

  2. I can’t remember when Riverford started using the heat sealed polypropylene packaging for salad leaves and loose stuff like French beans and peas? Find it really annoying as impossible to reuse (it tears) like you could do with a poly bag. Personally I miss the days when everything was thrown in the box together, but appreciate operations have grown and need some automation and pre packing.

  3. Hi Annonie,any plastic that is used is purely to prevent food waste for things such as salad leaves and delicate veg. If the bags can’t be recycled locally they can be sent back to the farm with your old box for recycling. There’s a more diverse range of veg on offer now than in the early days of vegboxes, and Riverford have been developing and trialling home compostable plastic alternatives, which will be phased in over the next year – all fruit and veg boxes will be plastic free by the end of 2020. You can find out more here https://www.riverford.co.uk/ndv/aboutus/thoughtful-packaging

  4. I would have thought that an easy answer would be to tax unnecessay plastic items out of existence. If governments had the will and if oil companies didn’t have such sway and if right wing economics didn’t rely on subsistence wages for the poorest in society, necessitating cheap food and consumables without regard to the pollution or environmental destruction caused by them, it would happen tomorrow. All products should be taxed on their environmental impact, rather than for any other reason, but that would mean no cheap environment damaging food or consumables, so to do that requires people to earn a living wage. Lets hope we get someone with empathy running the country soon, as things might begin to change then. If people choose the blinkered, selfish, ignorant route yet again, there is no viable future for anyone.

  5. I was reading that surplus gas from fracking in the USA is going to be used to promote more plastic products. I can’t really see any way out of all this until it is forced on us as we can’t go backwards, only forwards and even I can’t see how that can be done. There are too many aspects to it. And the people who stop eating meat will just go out and buy even more products to replace it but they will think they are saving the planet.

  6. When loss of profit begins to hit corporations they somehow seem to change quite quickly. So it seems to me the quicker we get on and buy toothpaste in glass jars, deodorants in cardboard, use wooden toothbrushes, shop in bulk using re-used bags and containers,use solid bars of shampoo, ( you get my drift ) the quicker change will come about. As lazy corporations see what is happening they will quickly take note.

    1. Hi Anthony whilst we await more leadership from governments on this we can at least choose what we support with our spending power – already there are shifts in how many companies operate – this needs to grow quickly and more widely as customers demand change.


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