Dr Imogen Napper On Microplastics and Why There's Reason To Be Optimistic

Dr Imogen Napper on a research vessle
Dr Imogen Napper on a research vessle

We recently spoke to Dr Imogen Napper. Imogen (or Imiy) is post-doctoral marine scientist who specialises in researching plastic pollution down in the University of Plymouth. A huge thank you to Imiy for taking some time to chat with us and give us the scoop on the effects of microplastics, and an insight into her amazing research. 

Dr Imogen Napper
Photo: University of Plymouth 


Hello Imiy! Thank you for having a chat with us today. We spotted you and your work early doors here at Seep. For those who may not know who you are can you give us a bit of an overview and what your work is all about? 

I've best been described as a plastic detective. This is because my research investigates the sources of how plastics are getting into our oceans and marine environment, and their fates. I did a PhD at the University of Plymouth doing exactly that. 

I was really intrigued by the plastic coming from common products, but would never be considered as “pollution”. My first bit of research looked at microbeads. We found that around 3 million could be in just one facial scrub, which is a huge amount. It was quite shocking, because to be honest I was expecting it to be more in the hundreds. 

Because of that research it helped to influence industry to voluntarily remove plastic from facial scrubs, which then further led to the ban of microbeads in many different countries. It was very exciting and showed me how research can make a difference. 

It must be amazing as a researcher to see how stuff has actually turned into action. 

Yes definitely. You spend hours, months doing your research project and you want to do it to make a positive change and educate people. Answering the unanswered questions is important because it gives people the building blocks to make a change. 

So, on top of being a researcher what else are you involved in? 

Through my research I got involved with National Geographic and Sky Ocean Rescue. It was a crazy year where we got trained in things like media delivery and how you can communicate research to a wider audience. I’m really passionate about science communication as it’s about making sure the results you do get are pushed out so people know what you’ve done and why. 

Working with National Geographic led to being on their expedition team, where we did two expeditions to the Ganges looking at plastics in rivers in Bangladesh and India.

Were you also involved in the Everest expedition? 

I was involved in the Everest paper, but the closest I got to Everest was my lab. I arranged the methodology and the communications with the team and getting the samples was really exciting. We got a Guinness World Record for the highest microplastics ever discovered, which was scary. At the same time it’s eye opening and hopefully we can use it to show people that our environment is heavily polluted. 

That actually leads us really nicely onto our second question. You’ve done a lot of research around microplastics. Was there a particular trigger that made you want to really study that? 

Honestly, there’s been no prior thought to it. The things I found really interesting to research were looking at sources of plastic that we weren’t always aware of. Naturally that led me to look at microplastics. I had never considered the smaller bits of plastic before, even though they are just as troublesome. 

Once your eyes are open to the issue of microplastics, you realise it can be everywhere. We wear plastics all the time. Our carpet, sofa, etc. Many of the products in the environment around us will eventually break down into microplastics.

Can you put the scale of the microplastics problem into context for us. And what are the knock on effects? 

The scale is huge. The true amount of plastics entering our ocean is something that I can’t even fathom. We have model predictions of around 8 million tonnes every year. However, when we did the research looking at the Ganges river, we found that around 3 billion microplastic particles could be ejected from the Ganges and joining rivers into the Bay of Bengal, and then into the ocean everyday. 

There are so many things that release microplastics on a daily basis. Like everytime you wash your face with facial scrub tens of thousands of microbeads can potentially go into the ocean. Everytime we wash our clothes seven hundred thousands fibres can make their way into our environment… 

It’s hard to put a number on it, but I think we can all understand that it’s a really big problem.

So, what happens when it’s in our ecosystem? 

For me, the scariest thing is that plastic is designed to persist, that’s why it’s so commonly used. It’s going to last for years and years. So, that’s why we need to act on it now. I can’t even imagine what it's going to be like in another 100 years when plastic has only been around for 100 years itself!

It’s making our environment into a big plastic soup. 

Do microplastics end up inside us as well as in animals and the environment? 

Well, new research is coming out. I think we’re going to find more about the impacts of plastics in the next decade for sure. Something that’s always in the back of my head is what chemicals are associated with making plastic. Some chemicals that may be used in plastic, such as BPA, may cause cancer. I’m intrigued to see more research coming out over the next few years. 

Just to make people aware, what are the things in our day-to-day lives that are contributing to this problem? Are there obvious ones and non-obvious ones? 

Even things like washing clothes are known to contribute. Name anything in your kitchen, or the stuff in your fridge. I could go get my dog leash and that would probably be plastic.

It is an amazing material. It’s so versatile and cheap to make. But, the problem is that we make so much of it and we’re not considering how it’s going to be disposed of and the end of life of that product. Knowing the environmental impact and the whole life journey of what we’re buying is really important. 

So, a massive problem. Looking ahead, what are you most hopeful and optimistic about? 

We know that plastic has really infiltrated our environment. We’ve found it in the deep sea, and now at the top of Mt. Everest. We know it’s there. That actually provides us opportunities to work together. It’s now easier for a lot of people to know what they can do to make the problem better. Even small changes in your life can have a huge input. We need to work further with industry and government to make eco choices accessible and affordable to the population. 

Are there any of these new materials that you’re particularly hopeful for? 

The most exciting thing is how many new startups and new innovations there are. 

We need to make sure we’re collaborating with scientists/researchers, governments and industries all together so we’re spreading and sharing knowledge and making sure the product being designed is actually eco-friendly. 

So, lots of reasons to be optimistic. For our customers and community, what are the things we can get involved with to help? 

For both of them - healthy discussion. Realising that things aren’t perfect and that it’s going to be a learning curve for everyone. For consumers, not feeling guilty that you can’t save the oceans or the environment overnight. It’s got to be a collaborative effort. It’s different for each person and family but as long as you’re trying and making small steps. Small steps can lead to a big difference. 

Are there any organisations that you think are doing a great job at educating and informing people about this? 

In the UK there’s Surfers Against Sewage, they’re educating people about where plastic is coming from and pushing back to make legislative change. Also, the Marine Conservation Society who help conserve the wonderful nature and landscapes around our coast.

There is also an App called Marine Debris Tracker. You can go anywhere in the world and track what litter you find, and that goes into a big database which scientists can then use to look at trends. As you can imagine, in COVID we’re seeing a lot more blue face masks.

They’re super practical things that people can do, that’s great. Any other words of encouragement or advice? 

Celebrate the small wins. Know that small wins make a huge impact and that it’s like a jigsaw puzzle. Everyone is part of the jigsaw and we need to put the pieces together, but it’s not going to happen overnight.

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