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 Professor Penelope Lindeque, Professor Richard Thompson and Professor Tamara Galloway

Volvo Environment Prize 2022 awarded for world-leading microplastics research

Professor Tamara Galloway from the University of Exeter has been awarded the Volvo Environment Prize 2022, for her pioneering work to alert the world to the devastating impacts of plastic pollution in the environment. 

Professor Galloway is one of three world-leading scientists from the South West region – along with Professor Richard Thompson and Professor Penelope Lindeque – to win this year’s accolade, marking their role at the global forefront of marine litter research and education for the past two decades. 

They have also helped to bring about changes in global policy, with their work central to international government legislation and influencing the United Nations Treaty on Plastic Pollution, signed by 175 nations earlier this year. 

In selecting the three laureates for this year’s award, the jury for the Volvo Environment Prize acknowledged that their work “has been instrumental in providing societal awareness of plastic pollution as an emerging global challenge and triggering policy actions”

The Volvo Environment Prize has been awarded annually since 1990 and has become one of the scientific world’s most respected environmental prizes. This is just the fourth time in its history that it has been awarded to scientists from the UK. 

Professor Galloway’s research investigates how plastics and the chemicals they contain can permeate the food chain of all creatures, including humans. Her work has played a crucial role in the banning of microbeads from cosmetics and cleaning products – meaning 4,000 tonnes are no longer released into the ocean. 

Research by Professor Galloway and her team has also been instrumental in reducing the use of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in the manufacture of plastic bottles that has been associated with adverse health effects. 

Professor Galloway and her colleagues are now investigating how we can make the plastic economy more sustainable by closing the production to waste loop so that used plastic is recycled back to the source and none escapes out to sea as pollution 

Professor Galloway said:‘’Achieving what we have achieved has only been possible due to the many scientists, students and collaborators who have been and continue to be involved in this work around the world. Everyone who has contributed to this field of research is helping the bring about positive change for the whole of society and this award recognizes all of them.” 

Professor Thompson, from the University of Plymouth, led the first study, published in 2004, describing marine microplastics and tis topic has since become a focus for research all over the world. The three laureates have subsequently made ground-breaking contributions on the effects of microplastics and particulate pollutants on marine organisms and human health. 

They have highlighted how microplastics are present from the poles to the equator and from the highest mountains to the deepest sea beds. They have also tracked their sources – from plastic bags to microbeads in cosmetics, and tyre particles, their pathways via waste water and rivers, and how they impact the ocean and its species and enter the human food chain. 

Critically, they have also looked into potential solutions, evaluating the potential for natural and mechanical measures to clear plastic from the environment. And they continue to work with industry and policy makers on the most effective ways to change the design of plastics products, and bring about a cultural shift in society’s use of them. 

This is the second time the ongoing collaboration between the three research teams has been recognised after they won both the Societal Impact category and overall prize in the Natural Environment Research Council’s 2018 Impact Awards. 

Professor Janice Kay, Provost of the University of Exeter said: “We are absolutely delighted that Tamara, and her colleagues Richard and Pennie, have been awarded the prestigious Volvo Environment Prize. 'Team Plastics', as we affectionally call them, have conducted pioneering work on the devastating effects of plastic pollution, and microplastics as marine pollutants, but crucially also in providing real-world solutions.  

"This is a wonderful example of how some of the world's greatest challenges can be tackled through interdisciplinary collaborations. It also truly exemplifies the University of Exeter’s key aim to be at the forefront of leading meaningful action against the climate and ecological crisis we face." 

They will be formally awarded the Volvo Environment Prize as part of a prize ceremony and seminar in Gothenburg, Sweden, on November 29. 

Date: 24 October 2022

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