Environmental Hazards, oceans

Keeping Plastic Out of Our Waters

Several nations and states are taking measures to prevent plastic pollution from reaching the oceans.
Plastic pollution in the ocean. Photo: Shutterstock

This past week Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet signed a bill that will ban plastic bags in more than 100 coastal areas. Her decision, she said, was about “taking care of our marine ecosystems.”

“Our fish are dying from plastics ingestion or strangulation; [limiting plastic bags] is a task in which everyone must collaborate,” she added.

It’s a huge deal, not only for Chile’s environment, but for other countries considering their own plastic bag ban.

Chile’s World Wildlife Fund noted that the bill “marks a very important milestone for Chile and opens the door for the whole country to say goodbye to plastic bags.”

According to a 2015 study published in Science, about eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the sea every year, which can affect millions of marine species. And toxins ingested by fish exposed to those plastics can affect humans as well when they eat those fish.

Chile’s potential ban on plastic bags isn’t the first such ban. The U.S. in particular has already instated bans in many areas, including Massachusetts, California, and Washington. They’ve been shown to be quite effective, too: The ban in San Jose, California led to an 89 percent reduction in plastic bags ending up in storm drains. And in Seattle, Washington, the plastic bag ban has led to a 50 percent reduction of plastic bags ending up in city dumps.

In other areas it’s been trickier. State Senator Linda Stewart of Orlando recently announced she will file a bill in Tallahassee to reverse the current law that prevents governments from banning plastic bags and Styrofoam containers.

Why would a city have such a law in place to begin with? Money, it seems: Grocery heavy-hitter Publix lobbied state politicians to the tune of $1 million to get the law against banning plastic bags instated. However, Stewart may be turning the (plastic) tides with her bill, if it’s passed. At the very least, it’s inspired a similar measure in the Florida House of Representatives.

Banning plastic bags in more places—both in the U.S. and elsewhere—is likely to be a huge boon to marine wildlife. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.

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Nature, oceans

New Study Says Sea Animals Eat Plastic Because of Its Taste

A new study says that sea animals may like plastic because it tastes good.
These coral polyps are feeding–and most likely ingesting lots of microplastics in the process. Photo: Shutterstock

Scientists have long known that plastic in the oceans can mimic prey, causing huge problems for sea life. But what they didn’t know is that even corals eat plastic.

Corals don’t have eyes, and they don’t move from their location, so why would they eat plastic? Apparently because it tastes good, according to a recent study from Duke University.

This taste factor may also be true for other sea life. After all, anecdotal evidence suggests that our cats and dogs eat plastic because they like the taste and/or the texture, so why wouldn’t sea life have the same reaction?

Microplastics, tiny pieces of weathered plastic less than 5 millimeters in diameter, have been accumulating in the world’s oceans for 40 years or more, and now they’re ubiquitous in the marine environment. They don’t just pose threats to corals, they also pose a threat to foraging sea animals including birds, turtles, mammals, and invertebrates.

Because plastic is largely indigestible, it can lead to intestinal blockages, create a false sense of fullness, or reduce energy reserves in animals that eat it.

“About eight percent of the plastic that coral polyps in our study ingested was still stuck in their guts after 24 hours,” said study co-lead author Austin S. Allen, a Ph.D. student at Duke.

Plastics can also leach hundreds of chemical compounds into the bodies of the creatures that eat it and into the environment as well. The biological effects of most plastic compounds are unknown, but we do know that some have already been shown to cause harm. For example, phthalates are confirmed environmental estrogens and androgens—that is, hormones that affect sex determination.

“Corals in our experiments ate all types of plastics, but preferred unfouled microplastics by a threefold difference over microplastics covered in bacteria,” Allen said.

“When plastic comes from the factory, it has hundreds of chemical additives on it. Any one of these chemicals or a combination of them could be acting as a stimulant that makes plastic appealing to corals,” said Alexander C. Seymour, a GIS analyst at Duke, who co-led the study with Allen.

The researchers hope their findings will encourage more scientists to study the role taste plays in determining why marine animals ingest microplastics.

“Ultimately, the hope is that if we can manufacture plastic so it unintentionally tastes good to these animals, we might also be able to manufacture it so it intentionally tastes bad,” Seymour said. “That could significantly help reduce the threat these microplastics pose.”

oceans

Pollution from 1970s Found in Deepest Ocean

Pollution from the 1970s has been found in the deepest parts of the world's oceans.
Photo: Shutterstock

A study by researchers from Newcastle University, the James Hutton Institute, and University of Aberdeen have found that amphipods, small scavengers who live in the depths of the Mariana and Kermadec trenches, over 6 miles deep and 4,400 miles apart, contain “extremely high levels of Persistent Organic Pollutants” stored in their fatty tissue.

Better known as POPs, these include chemical compounds like PCBs and PBDEs, which were banned in the 1970s. This means that these pollutants have been working their way down the food web and into the deepest parts of the ocean, where they build up in larger numbers in creatures that live there.

The researchers used deep-sea landers to bring up samples of creatures that live in the deepest levels of the trenches.

“The amphipods we sampled contained levels of contamination similar to that found in Suruga Bay, one of the most polluted industrial zones in the northwest Pacific,” said study lead author Dr. Alan Jamieson of Newcastle University.

The deepest parts of the ocean are in significant danger as pollutants, released into the environment through industrial accidents and discharges and leakages from landfills, sink to the bottom of the ocean. Whether in their raw form, like bits of plastic, or in the bodies of animals that have ingested those pollutants, they end up building up on the bottom. When scavengers eat such creatures, they gets larger doses of POPs than animals in shallower water did.

It’s safe to assume that POPs aren’t the only pollutants that have reached the deep oceans, and it’s obvious that human activity has an even greater impact than we’d hoped.

“This research shows that far from being remote, the deep ocean is highly connected to the surface waters,” Jamieson wrote. “We’re very good at taking an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach when it comes to the deep ocean, but we can’t afford to be complacent.”