Imogen Napper
Imogen completed research showing the biodegradable bags did not degrade after 3 years in the marine environment Author: Lloyd Russell

Imogen Napper

Marine Scientist and Plastic Detective

microplastics in the cosmos

meet imogen

Dr. Imogen Napper, a British marine scientist, has been described as the ‘Plastic Detective.’
Questioning a balloon release when she was younger, Imogen now delves into researching the sources and fate of plastic pollution. Her studies uncovered that a single facial scrub could contain 3 million plastic microbeads, influencing a global ban. She has also explored plastic pollution from washing clothes, demonstrated the resilience of biodegradable bags in the ocean, and identified the highest microplastics on land near the summit of Mt. Everest. Additionally, she navigates the interconnected web of plastic pollution and other environmental issues, including space debris. Imogen advocates for environmental connection and awareness, urging global commitments from industry and governments to combat the pressing issue of plastic pollution.

microplastics in the cosmos
Nominated by: Bonnie Wyper, MR'18 Joe Grabowski, FI'18
Class of 2024 Location United Kingdom
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Being connected to the marine environment, particularly surfing, inspires Imogen’s work
Being connected to the marine environment, particularly surfing, inspires Imogen’s work Author: Jamie Mitchell

From the edges of space to the washing machines in your home, the summit of Everest to the mouth of the Ganges river, I have found microplastics in just about every place imaginable. As a Plastic Detective, my research investigates the various sources of modern plastic pollution and the places where these plastics meet their fate in our natural environments. Through my work, I’ve come to strongly believe that research can be a powerful driving force for social change. In my first piece, we investigated the micro-plastic beads commonly found in facial scrubs and discovered that a single bottle could contain up to 3 million plastic beads. Uncovering this fact led to a significant consumer movement, which ultimately pressured the cosmetics industry to voluntarily remove microbeads from millions of products around the world, in turn influencing global legislation banning microplastic beads. 

Since then, we have tackled other unique and little-known pollution sources to drive change and create awareness of the ubiquity of plastic pollution. Our investigations cover everyday actions such as washing and wearing clothes – did you know that 700,000 fibres come off your clothes per wash? We’ve demonstrated that, even after being submerged in the ocean for 3 years, biodegradable plastic bags can still hold a full load of grocery shopping. Another project discovered that fishing rope releases significantly more fibres after two years of use (>700 fragments per meter hauled). The science of a plastics’ lifespan can help us better understand human impact on the environment and ways we can make our everyday life more sustainable. Overall, this research not only uncovers the hidden impacts of everyday products but also underscores the power of informed choices in shaping a more sustainable and environmentally conscious future.

“Growing up, ‘why’ was my favorite word. I was driven by curiosity and a relentless pursuit of answers.”

- Imogen Napper
Imogen and her washing machine lab at the University of Plymouth
Imogen and her washing machine lab at the University of Plymouth Author: Lloyd Russell

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that exploration can be right on your doorstep and still address local, national, and global challenges. A substantial portion of my research has been based locally and in laboratories, teaching me that you don’t necessarily need to venture into the remote jungle, deep sea, or the edge of space – exploration can happen wherever you are.

Now, my research is reaching new heights – literally. I have joined a team to investigate debris in Earth’s orbit without physically going into space. We connect internationally through various communication methods, seeking answers through different means, and leveraging the knowledge of plastic pollution in Earth’s ocean environments to contribute to the exploration of an atmosphere thousands of miles away. Similarly to plastic pollution in the ocean, space pollution is a frontier we need to guard before it becomes another victim of our neglect. As satellites and debris clutter our orbit, our team is pushing for a United Nations Sustainable Development Goal dedicated to managing and protecting the orbital environment. I hope that, by uncovering the mysteries of plastic pollution from the ocean to outer space, we’ll inspire a collective responsibility for our planet’s well-being.

This realization has led me to reflect on how we can make exploration more accessible to people outside of the scientific community. I have come to believe that increased accessibility can be achieved through enhanced educational opportunities to learn about our planet. Education stands as our most powerful tool for creating change; therefore, we must create more opportunities to facilitate learning. Currently, I am working on different citizen science methods to track land-based litter. Beyond assisting our research goals, this engagement encourages various community members to get outside, feel impactful, connect with their local surroundings, and address local issues. I hope that my work serves as an inspirational tool, showing that, regardless of who you are, you can be an explorer.

never stop exploring