He wrote the first study ever on microplastics. Biologist Richard Thompson warns of the biggest problem at the UN plastic conference in Nairobi.
professor Thompson, ten years ago there was not even the idea of an international plastic agreement. They were instrumental in ensuring that the current third UN conference on the topic at allfinds. How did that happen?
The marine biologist from the University of Plymouth was one of the first to draw attention to the enormous spread of microscopic plastic particles in the oceans.
Richard Thompson: In 2004, I and my team published the world’s first scientific paper on microplastics. There are now more than 4,000 studies – on this topic alone. Research into plastic is growing exponentially, which is of course because pollution has exploded. In 1952, five million tons of plastic were produced, today it is probably around 400 million – per year. What we know: 40 percent of the plastic produced is single-use plastic.
Can the UN conference in Nairobi do something about this?
We need this agreement because the planet is from the highest mountain to the deepest sea is contaminated with plastic. Traces of plastic can be found in almost every living creature we have looked at, including humans. The future looks very bleak if we don’t change our behavior.
A comprehensive, legally binding agreement at UN level could be signed for the first time at the end of 2024. What does that mean for you?
It’s a rollercoaster of emotions. I have been working on this topic for 33 years now. When we discussed microplastics six months ago at the second anti-plastic conference, INC-2 in Paris, one member state after another spoke up and agreed to support measures to reduce microplastics. Everyone said they wanted to address the problem. I was very humbled as I sat there in the stands as an observer.
The plastic agreement is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our planet. What worries me, however, is that there is no formal way for scientists to bring facts to the conference. We know that avoidance, reuse and recycling are important, but we’ve known this since 1970. What we need is specific, scientific evidence to move forward at the conference – where exactly do we need to reduce, what is really worth recycling? The risk I see at the moment is that some delegates will start to guess in the dark or be influenced by disinformation. That worries me a lot.
She sare committed to ensuring that the contract not only stands for better recycling, but also limits the production of plastic. How realistic is it that we can agree on this?
I really hope it succeeds. We have to address this systemically. No matter how committed you are to waste management and the circular economy, without reducing production and consumption you will not get the problem under control. What it all boils down to, however, is that we need to reduce the overall amount of plastic. This will probably be the biggest hurdle the agreement has to overcome. And to be clear: there will be winners and losers among UN member states. That’s why we need to find ways to create a just and fair transition for everyone. That is where we have to start and that is exactly the core of the political negotiations.