We sat down with Imogen to discuss her inspiring work – which was instrumental in the banning of plastic microbeads in cosmetics
Having grown up in the seaside town of Clevedon, Dr Imogen Napper has always felt a strong connection with the ocean, and this appreciation for the marine world has shaped her working life. A Sky Ocean Rescue Scholar, National Geographic Explorer, and member of this year’s RE.GENERATION programme cohort, Imogen boasts a host of impressive titles. But, arguably, her most notable research so far has been on microbeads – the tiny plastic spheres in products like scrubs, toothpaste, and suncream – which helped to encourage legislation for the banning of microbeads worldwide.
We sat down with Imogen to discuss her impressive work. Take a look.
A discussion with dr imogen napper
“I used to use these facial scrubs. I didn’t even think they contained plastic, it didn’t even cross my mind. I just assumed they would be something natural and dissolvable.” Much like the rest of us, Imogen didn’t fully grasp just how pervasive plastics were until she really looked into it.
Following on from work done by the Beat the Microbead campaign, Imogen was spurred on to find out just how much plastic was in the exfoliating products that millions use on a daily basis. What Imogen had initially believed would be an easy job – filtering out the beads – quickly became harder when she realised the liquid wasn’t filtering properly, leaving behind a powdery residue. The powder? Polyethylene.
“That was the big moment when I realised: all of this stuff is plastic, and they’re putting way more plastic in than certainly I ever realised, and I think more than the general population ever realised too.” The research revealed that one bottle of facial scrub contained 3 million microbeads.
With millions of tonnes of plastic flooding our oceans every year – and trillions of microplastics already there – it can be hard to know where to start. “I’m like everyone in that learning about climate change and seeing the news of all the fires and the floods and the plastic pollution, it makes you think: How can one person clean up a whole beach, knowing that tonnes and tonnes of plastic are entering the ocean on a daily basis? How is me not buying a facial scrub going to make a big difference? But actually, it really does,” Imogen emphasises. “The research that I did has really helped me to see that small changes can make a big difference.”
Even the seemingly insignificant choices we make with our daily personal care items can add up. “By not using that facial scrub you’re stopping millions of microplastics entering the environment. It’s not 10 or 20. By you not buying that one bottle, you’re stopping millions: 3 million per bottle. By only washing your clothes when you have to, you’re stopping 700,000 fibres from entering the ocean.”
“These, what can be considered very small changes, can still make a huge impact,” Imogen urges. It’s all about working together, and everyone making these seemingly insignificant changes. “We do move as a solo entity, but then we form a group, and then that group forms an army, and then that forms the population…these small actions, they do build up into something bigger.”
Whether it’s not using cosmetic products with these harmful microplastics or taking your reusable bag to the shops instead of taking a plastic one, Imogen emphasises that we can all have an impact.
And by making these changes ourselves, we can encourage others to do the same. If we can demonstrate positive, sustainable action to those close to us, the ripple effect can be huge – even by doing something as simple as picking up a piece of litter.
The impact of community action can’t be understated. Imogen points to the work of Surfers Against Sewage: “the action they’ve created from their local communities has fed into government, has created change, has reduced plastic consumption… but we can’t let it just pass us by – the mess is only going to get more.”
Imogen highlights that the COP28 conference might be a “different world” to her day-to-day of waste and plastic pollution, but it’s “intrinsically linked” nonetheless. “It can be very easy to get stuck in a scientific bubble and chat to people who are thinking the same,” Imogen says.
COP28, however, provides a great opportunity to get a different perspective and Imogen’s goal is to go to the event with an open mind. Her aim is to speak “to people to understand what direction they’re coming from and seeing how we can leverage everyone’s voices to form a more coherent path and not expect to change the world by myself overnight, it’s going to take many people. But seeing what small but important actions I can make. Or like I learnt at Regeneration, it’s not all about me. It’s about growing and giving others opportunities. Maybe I can be the person in that relay race to help further actions.”
From facial scrubs to cosmic waste
In terms of the future, Imogen is looking up – literally.
“I got obsessed with space debris,” she tells us. There are significant parallels between space and our oceans when it comes to human pollution: “Everything that’s happening in orbit is happening or has happened to the ocean”. Except, as Imogen points out, we’ve only had decades to damage space, rather than the centuries humans have spent harming the seas.
If we don’t do something about mounting space litter, Imogen stresses that we risk satellites colliding with debris, and this could have potentially disastrous consequences. “We use satellites so much in our day-to-day life that we don’t even consider it. But if satellite systems were to go down, or be restricted, or become expensive, then it’s only a proportion of countries who can afford that service.”
Knowing the detrimental impact we’ve had on the marine world, there’s a chance to stop it before it gets to a similar point for space. “We’re at a really pivotal point where we really can make a change,” Imogen highlights. “We’ve learnt from the mistakes of the past, and here we are acting upon it – rather than thinking after the damage is done…I’m trying to use everything I’ve learnt, the people I’ve met, all of this research that we have, and influence how we can try and mitigate space debris and protect that environment – because it’s still one of Earth’s environments.”
As Imogen highlights, there’s work to be done but it’s certainly possible for us to tackle our waste problem, whether it’s up in space or below the ocean’s surface. At Springwise, we’re constantly spotting new ways that innovators are helping us fight waste – take a look in our Innovation Library for some more inspiration.
Words: Matilda Cox
4th September 2023