Tiny fragments of plastic waste are dispersed throughout the environment, including the oceans, where marine organisms can ingest them. However, the subsequent fate of these microplastics in animals that live near the bottom of the ocean hasn’t been clear.
Now, researchers report that lobsters can eat and break down some of this microplastic material, releasing even smaller fragments into the water that other deep-sea organisms could ingest.
Microplastic pollution that makes its way into the ocean eventually sinks to the seabed. In lobsters collected near Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea, the researchers found that larger plastic particles became trapped in the crustaceans’ stomachs.
However, some particles passed into the “gastric mill,” a complex of small calcified plates that grind against each other to break down food in a lobster’s stomach. This process fragmented some of the plastic into smaller particles, which then moved on to the lobsters’ intestines. In live animals, these smaller fragments would be expelled into the ocean.
These findings highlight the existence of a new kind of “secondary” microplastic, introduced into the environment by living organisms, that could represent a significant pathway of plastic degradation in the deep sea, the authors say.
10 facts about plastic pollution…
- Since the 1950s, around 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced worldwide. An estimated 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s — that’s equivalent to the weight of more than 800,000 Eiffel Towers. And only 9% of it has been recycled.
- In some parts of the world, using plastic is already illegal.
Kenya introduced one of the world’s toughest laws against plastic bags in 2017. Other countries that have banned, partially banned, or taxed single-use plastic bags include China, France, Rwanda, and Italy.
3. 73 percent of beach litter worldwide is plastic. The litter includes filters from cigarette butts, bottles, bottle caps, food wrappers, grocery bags, and polystyrene containers.
- A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and this number is set to increase by another 20% by 2021. Less than half of the bottles purchased are recycled — with just 7% of those collected turned into new bottles, and the rest ending up in landfill sites or the ocean.
- Worldwide, about 2 million plastic bags are used every minute.
Bans on plastic bags have proved to be extremely effective in the countries that have them. In the UK, for example, the introduction of a 5p plastic bag charge introduced in 2015 has brought about an 83% reduction in plastic bag use.
90% of plastic polluting our oceans is carried by just 10 rivers.
According to World Economic Forum researchers, just 10 rivers across Asia and Africa carry 90% of the plastic that ends up in the oceans.
- Hai He
- Plastic is killing more than 1.1 million seabirds and animals every year. 90 percent of all birds and fish are believed to have plastic particles in their stomach. It’s because plastic breaks up into tiny pieces in the sea, which are then consumed by fish and other sea animals. Research from Plymouth University has found that close to 700 species of marine life are facing extinction due to the increase of plastic pollution.
- The average person eats 70,000 microplastics each year.
That works out to about 100 bits of microplastic over the course of just one meal, according to a study published in Environmental Pollution. A team of UK-based researchers put petri dishes with sticky surfaces next to dinner plates in three homes in the UK. After just 20 minutes, the dishes accumulated an average of 14 microplastics.
- The average time that a plastic bag is used for an average of 12 minutes, they may then take up to a thousand years to decompose.
- Over the past 50 years, world plastic production has doubled.
While increasing numbers of organisations and countries are banning plastic use and production, the world’s leading plastic manufacturers are planning to increase production by almost a third over the next five years, according to the World Economic Forum.
What can I do about plastic in the sea?
Everyone can do something to reduce the amount of plastic that enters the ocean. Here are seven ways you can make a difference.
1. Reduce Your Use of Single-Use Plastics
Wherever you live, the easiest and most direct way that you can get started is by reducing your own use of single-use plastics. Single-use plastics include plastic bags, water bottles, straws, cups, utensils, dry cleaning bags, take-out containers, and any other plastic items that are used once and then discarded.
The best way to do this is by:
a) refusing any single-use plastics that you do not need (e.g. straws, plastic bags, takeout utensils, takeout containers)
b) purchasing, and carrying with you, reusable versions of those products, including reusable grocery bags, produce bags, bottles, utensils, coffee cups, and dry cleaning garment bags. And when you refuse single-use plastic items, help businesses by letting them know that you would like them to offer alternatives.
2. Recycle Properly
This should go without saying, but when you use single-use (and other) plastics that can be recycled, always be sure to recycle them. At present, just 9% of plastic is recycled worldwide. Recycling helps keep plastics out of the ocean and reduces the amount of “new” plastic in circulation.
3. Participate In (or Organise) a Beach or River Cleanup
Help remove plastics from the ocean and prevent them from getting there in the first place by participating in or organising a cleanup of your local beach or waterway. This is one of the most direct and rewarding ways to fight ocean plastic pollution. You can simply go to the beach or waterway and collect plastic waste on your own or with friends or family in a #2minutebeachclean
4. Support Bans
Many countries around the world have enacted bans on single use plastic bags, takeout containers, and bottles. You can support the adoption of such policies in your community, such a plastic-free towns.
5. Avoid Products Containing Microbeads
Tiny plastic particles, called “microbeads,” have become a growing source of ocean plastic pollution in recent years. Microbeads are found in some face scrubs, toothpastes, and bodywashes, and they readily enter our oceans and waterways through our sewer systems, and affect hundreds of marine species. Avoid products containing plastic microbeads by looking for “polythelene” and “polypropylene” on the ingredient labels of your cosmetic products (find a list of products containing microbeads here).
6. Spread the Word
Stay informed on issues related to plastic pollution and help make others aware of the problem. Tell your friends and family about how they can be part of the solution, or host a viewing party for one of the many plastic pollution focused documentaries, like Bag It, Addicted to Plastic, Plasticized, or Garbage Island.
7. Support Organizations Addressing Plastic Pollution
There are many non-profit organizations working to reduce and eliminate ocean plastic pollution in a variety of different ways, including Oceanic Society, Plastic Pollution Coalition, 5 Gyres, Algalita, Plastic Soup Foundation, and others. These organizations rely on donations from people like you to continue their important work. Even small donations can make a big difference!
These seven ideas only scratch the surface for ways you can help address the growing problem of plastic pollution in the oceans. The important thing is that we all do something, no matter how small. For more ideas and resources, sign up to join our Blue Habits community of people worldwide committed to joyful daily actions that improve ocean health.