'Plastics Detective’ Imogen Napper traces pollution to the source

Her work is helping expose and end inconspicuous plastic highways littering the environment.

Imogen Napper thinks a lot about plastic. For all the bad rap it gets, she acknowledges its widespread utility: "I'm chatting to you now through our laptops, which contain plastic. My clothes are made out of plastic. I've got plastic elements in my phone. The carpets are plastic."  

She's been called a plastics detective. As a marine scientist and researcher and National Geographic Explorer, Napper has spent years sweeping the world for traces of plastic where it doesn't belong, and finding creative solutions to the problem of plastic pollution. Napper attributes her work style to words of encouragement from her mother: "You can't connect the dots going forward, but you can always connect them going back."

She looks for ways plastic gets into the environment through pathways we wouldn't often consider. An early subject of her curiosity was face wash. Napper wondered how many microbeads—granular plastic—it took to scour her skin clean using popular exfoliators. She spent a lot of time purchasing suspect beauty products, sometimes 20 types of face wash at a time. "I think that the shop assistants just thought I really wanted to be really clean," she laughs.

Around 100,000 microbeads were found to be used per wash, and up to three million could be in one bottle, Napper’s research found. This meant a colossal amount of microplastics were traveling down household sinks and into water systems each time people washed their faces. 

Humans didn’t want to scrub with plastic. Napper’s findings influenced consumers, and consequently, legislation, which banned the use of microbeads in products worldwide. Plastic was pushed out by alternative, natural scrubbing agents like sugar and salt, and an accomplished Napper was overtaken by how her curiosity had led her here. 

"That lit the fire for research and me being obsessed with other ways that we can have a look at how we can protect the planet," she says of her career path. If face washing was sneakily dumping plastic bits down the drain by the millions, surely other seemingly harmless human behavior was feeding an ocean landfill.

As a continuation of her doctoral research at the University of Plymouth, Napper investigated washing machine output. Synthetic clothing fibers—tiny plastic shreds—are peeled off of laundry by the hundreds of thousands with each load. Around 700,000 fibers were plucked from a single wash, the majority of which float into a sewage treatment plant, and eventually into the environment.

Slowing down this kind of litter can be simple and effective, Napper explains. With funding from National Geographic and Sky Ocean Rescue, a British television network cleanup campaign, she experimented with different technologies to identify which cut back laundry waste the best.  "This is a Guppybag,” she says, holding up a mesh fiber-catching device. 

Filters in washing machines can succeed in keeping up to 80 percent of washing-induced lint from rivers and oceans, where around 11 million tons of plastic are dumped each year. This is on top of an estimated 200 million tons already crowding marine environments

Fish mistake tiny garbage pieces for food so regularly they're dying early of nutrient deprivation, and plastic fragments have been found in the digestive systems of deep sea creatures, like the vampire squid, which lives some 3,000 feet below sea level. 

At its surface, the ocean gives hints of these deep-water issues. For Napper, the problem became obvious when she picked up surfing. The beaches near her hometown in England that she remembers as pristine during her childhood seemed to get buried by a thicker blanket of garbage each year. 

Deciding to be part of the solution, Napper approached her doctorate studies on the sources of plastic in marine environments convinced there was one fate for plastic: to stop it from entering the environment as litter. 

Her work led her to a middle ground. Today, she notes "It's (plastic) really a victim of its own success.” 

It's cheap, durable, and versatile, but the qualities that make it a commodity for humans also make it a threat to the environment. "In the last 100 years, it has completely revolutionized our lives for the better. But we have to be responsible by thinking of how it can be used in a circular fashion," she emphasizes. 

Napper has been asking big questions since she was a little girl. Why? was her favorite. "I was always asking 'why this? Why that?' My parents told me I was a very curious child. I think that led to my love of science, which is answering unanswered questions and figuring out more about the planet and the world," she recalls.

When she was 10, she wondered why only two balloons were found after she and her classmates released 60 over the English sea as part of a charity fundraiser from their primary school. The surviving two landed in France. "What happened to the other balloons that were dropping into the ocean if they were crossing the English Channel?" Napper remembers asking. 

She has made a career of satisfying a growing list of personal curiosities and turning them into important questions. 

 She's challenged solutions to the plastic problem, including testing products labeled "biodegradable," and finding that alleged environmentally friendly shopping bags could carry full loads three years after they had been left to decompose.

The problem of greenwashing—when green or sustainable marketing is used deceptively—is another area Napper feels consumers can hold industry accountable. "We need to think a little bit more about what we call green and environmental," she encourages. 

She’s also taken her work into the field. In 2019, she led two all-female expedition teams to the Ganges River. As part of National Geographic's "Sea to Source: Ganges" Expedition, Napper found that up to three billion microplastics drift into the Bay of Bengal by way of the Ganges daily. 

Even at elevation, signs of human reliance on plastic could become part of the earth's fossil record. 

Through the pandemic, Napper analyzed snow samples collected in 2019 by a team of fellow Explorers as part of National Geographic and Rolex's Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition and confirmed the presence of microplastics near the summit of Mount Everest—the highest ever recorded.   

"Basically I take the snow back to the lab, and then I extract any microplastics in the snow. They could be fibers or fragments, they could be beads. I characterize them, quantify them and then I have a look at what material they are," she explains.  

She shoots them with a laser to look at how much infrared radiation passes through a sample, and how much is absorbed, which helps to identify the chemical "fingerprint" of each sample.  Subsequently, this will give her a good idea of what the plastics are and where they may have come from. “I do that with a machine called a Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectroscopy," she pronounces. "FTIR for short."

High performance outerwear, tents, and climbing gear are shedding material on the slopes. Plastic could also be traveling via extreme winds from much further distances, Napper explains. 

Her work "keeps getting higher and higher," as she puts it. For her latest curiosity, she has her sights set on the final frontier. She and a team of fellow Explorers are working to protect space before litter becomes a menace there, too.

 "What's happening in our own orbit is exactly what happened to our ocean, where we're not regulating anything, we're putting stuff up there and not tracking it," she laments. Defunct satellites and other debris are steadily on the rise, and orbit junk has collided before, breaking into smaller pieces sent whirling at catastrophic speeds. 

Collection and removal of such litter is challenging, Napper points out, so management of what goes up is crucial. She's wrapping up the first study comparing ocean debris to space debris, and aims to push along the creation of a new United Nations Sustainable Development Goal focused on the management and protection of the orbital environment. 

With plastic sneaking its way to the edges of the earth, Napper remains hopeful that individual human behavior changes, like choosing products with less plastic packaging and prolonging the lifespan of our clothing, are doable and will bear a positive impact. 

Her favorite tip is simple and effective: "If you see a piece of litter and it's safe to do so, pick it up. You'll always be surprised who is watching and I can guarantee they'll be inspired to do the same."

This Explorer's work is funded by the National Geographic Society
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For the National Geographic Society: Natalie Hutchison is a Digital Content Producer for the Society. She believes authentic storytelling wields power to connect people over the shared human experience. In her free time she turns to her paintbrush to create visual snapshots she hopes will inspire hope and empathy.