Most of the attention given to threats on sea life is focused on plastic wastes that we can see. But another peril to the oceans eco-system comes in a much smaller form. The amount of microscopic plastic particles in the ocean has tripled since the 1960’s.

All of the plastic ever made is still on this planet.  It is either in a landfill, in water or on land. Unlike other types of trash, plastic does not biodegrade. Instead it photo-degrades, breaking down into smaller and smaller toxic pieces which can enter our soil and waterways, contaminating crops and fresh water supplies. Yet as tiny as they may become, these particles still exist in the water, and still constitute an ecological threat. These micro-plastics are consumed by marine creatures or break down into microscopic plastic dust which acts as a magnet for even more debris. Much of the plastic in all of the garbage patches of the world is in the form of microplastic.

Lanternfish, Mytophids and microplastic

20 years ago, a marine biologist from Great Britain named Dr. Richard Thompson pioneered the investigations into micro-plastics and its pervasiveness in marine environments. Dr. Thompson discovered how plastic degrades in water and how tiny marine organisms such as barnacles, respond to it. Plastic in a marine environment accumulates and concentrates toxic chemicals from the surrounding sea water. It concentrates pollutants like DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and POP’s (Persistent Organic Pollutants). These chemicals can harm marine organisms if they eat the micro-plastic.

This is happening everywhere, not just in the garbage patches.  Micro-plastics also expel harmful chemicals like BPA (Bisphenol A). Organisms at the bottom of the food chain, such as plankton and krill, ingest these chemicals along with the plastic particles. As the larger fish eat the smaller ones, the chemicals work their way up the food chain, ultimately to humans. This process is called bioaccumulation. “The possibility of more and more creatures ingesting plastics that contain concentrated pollutants is real and quite disturbing,” Dr. Thompson said.

What action will you take?

If you live near a beach or waterway, you can volunteer by helping with the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Clean-Up

If you live near New York City or Long Island, take a day to clean up some of the trash our fellow residents have left behind.  Sign up to volunteer at WAKEUP

You can Tell Congress the Ocean is on the Front Line of Climate Change

You can find out about the small pieces of plastic waste called “nurdles”.

By Rob Young for The Plastic Planet