Little bits of plastic are being found everywhere

Surprise Finding Heightens Concern Over Tiny Bits Of Plastic Polluting Our Oceans

by: Lynne Peeples

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Scientists are finding little bits of plastic in a lot of places lately: ice cores, deep sea sediments, coral reefs, crab gills, the digestive system of mussels, and even German beer. Now, new research suggests, scientists need not to be searching for the actual man-made material to discover it.

A team’s accidental finding of plastic in the skin of both farmed and wild fish adds to already growing environmental and public health concerns about the plastic particles pervading our oceans and waterways.

Over time, waves and sunlight break down large chunks of plastic, leaving the remnants of discarded packaging, bottles and bags nearly invisible to the naked eye. These so-called microplastics, particles under a millimeter across, may pose big troubles, experts warn.


“It fragments quickly. We fear that as plastic continues to break down, it becomes even more susceptible to being eaten or even embedded into their scales. Plastic has been found in creatures ranging from worms and barnacles to seabirds and marine mammals. Through bioaccumulation, Synthetic chemicals can then travel up the food chain, and potentially on to our dinner plates.

An estimated 5 to 13 million metric tons of plastic litter enters the world’s oceans every year. Since plastic does not biodegrade, it photodegrades, the plastic is accumulating each year.


A blue rectangular piece of microplastic is visible on a researcher’s finger. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Decades of convenient plastics and environmental pollution “may be coming back to haunt us in our seafood,” said Chelsea Rochman, a postdoctoral fellow in conservation research at the University of California, Davis.

At the forefront of the current debate over microplastics are microbeads, the minuscule balls of petrochemical-derived plastic added to hundreds of cosmetics, sunscreens, toothpastes and exfoliating body washes. When they’re rinsed down the drain, microbeads can flow through sewer systems — where they are often too tiny to be efficiently filtered by wastewater treatment plants — and into lakes, rivers and, ultimately, oceans. They arrive in the environment already fish-food size, even before the waves and sun begin breaking them down.Microplastic pollution in the Great Lakes drove Illinois to pass the first ban on microbeads last summer. .

“There are a whole host of questions that could come out of this,” said Law. “We’re starting to ask more questions about our drinking water.” The most pressing need right now is to improve waste management systems so that they can properly capture the plastic.

“In the long-term, we all need to think about how we’re using plastic,” Law said. “Individual actions can add up to have a positive impact.”

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