The food chain is an ordered series of organisms, each dependent on the previous as a source of food. In other words, herbivores eat plants to survive and carnivores eat herbivores and other carnivores. In the water, small fish eat plankton, and are then eaten by slightly larger fish, finally eaten by larger fish and then potentially ending up on your dinner plate.
Marine megafauna are large marine filter feeders that filter thousands of gallons of sea water to capture small plants and animals.1 These creatures play a critical role in the health of our oceans and the survival of all marine life. Sylvia Earle, marine biologist, author and explorer, believes,2 “The next 10 years may be more important than the last 10,000 in determining the fate of our oceans.”
Plastic of all sizes is threatening marine life. Every minute, another truck load of plastic trash ends up in the ocean, amounting to 8 million tons every year.3 This plastic ends up in sea turtle and whale stomachs; it strangles seabirds; and is broken down into microplastics consumed by fish and plankton — with unknown consequences.
But considering the fact plastic will not degrade within a human lifetime, and many of the chemicals used in the production of plastic are known endocrine disruptors, the likelihood is the effect on human health may be greater than imagined.
Animal research4 has shown microplastics translocate into the circulatory system of marine animals, have a toxic effect on the liver in fish5 and affect the gut barrier and composition of gut microbiota in marine animals and mice.6
This data points to the importance of controlling the amount of plastic disposed of in waterways as it’s destroying our oceans. The recent discovery of a dead 1,100-pound Curvier’s beaked whale with over 88 pounds (40 kilos) of plastic in its stomach is an appalling and graphic indication of the damage human pollution is doing to the environment, wildlife and ultimately human survival.
Dead Whale Starved After Eating 8 Percent of Its Body Weight in Plastic
Marine biologist Darrell Blatchley was called to a fishing village in the Philippines to attend to a dead young Curiver’s beaked whale found floating off the southern island of Mindanao. The currents had washed away the blood the whale had vomited just before death and Blatchley knew, even before seeing the whale, how it had died.7
On examination, the whale’s ribs were protruding through its skin and it showed telltale signs of dehydration and emaciation. During necropsy (i.e., autopsy of the animal), Blatchley found more than 88 pounds of plastic waste in the young whale’s stomach, consisting of grocery bags, banana plantation sacks, rice sacks and garbage bags.8
Blatchley is the president and founder of the D’Bone Collector Museum, a natural museum and education center in the Philippines. Over the past 10 years the museum has recovered 57 whales and dolphins that died from consuming plastic garbage. He told The Washington Post:9
“I knew this whale had died due to plastic ingestion. I was not prepared for the amount of plastic. It was so bad the plastic was beginning calcification. The plastic had been there a long time. The stomach was trying to absorb it any way possible.”
This was the most plastic Blatchley had ever found in a whale. As a whale ingests plastic, it gives the animal of false sensation of being full. The whale stops eating. This leads to the animal becoming weak and either falling prey to predators or dying of malnutrition.10
Microparticles Found in Marine Animals Stranded in Britain
Researchers from the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation in Exeter, U.K., sought to evaluate the extent of microplastic ingestion in marine animals using a large sample of 50 marine animals from 10 species stranded on the coast of Britain.11
Marine animals are important indicators of ecosystem health, particularly in relation to pollution, as these long-lived species have a high susceptibility to bioaccumulation of aquatic contaminants. The researchers wanted to determine the general number of microplastics ingested and the polymers involved.
They found the majority were fibers and the remaining 16 percent were microplastic fragments. The fiber particles were mainly blue and black, and nylon was the most prevalent polymer present. As marine megafauna filter-feed sea water each day for plankton, they’re also ingesting tiny particles of plastic.
The study’s lead author, Sarah Nelms, Ph.D. student researcher from the University of Exeter, found the results shocking but not surprising. Although the number of particles found in the digestive tract was relatively low in each animal, she commented:12
“We don’t yet know what effects the microplastics, or the chemicals on and in them, might have on marine mammals. More research is needed to better understand the potential impacts on animal health.”
The deaths were the result of a number of causes, but the animals that died of infectious diseases had a higher number of plastic particles in their bodies. Another study author from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation in Exeter, believes while it is impossible to draw firm conclusions from these results, ultimately, the findings are bad news:13
“We can’t draw any firm conclusions on the potential biological significance of this observation. We are at the very early stages of understanding this ubiquitous pollutant. We now have a benchmark that future studies can be compared with. Marine mammals are ideal sentinels of our impacts on the marine environment, as they are generally long lived and many feed high up in the food chain. Our findings are not good news.”
Majority of Microparticles Originate From Your Clothes
An unfortunate consequence of a large portion of innovations in manufacturing has been the impact on the environment, and ultimately on human life. Permutations and modifications occur at speeds far greater than safety testing may accommodate. One consequence of material transformation has been the development of plastic, which remains indefinitely as most do not biodegrade.14
A 14-person all-female crew of scientists, writers and activists manned a 72-foot vessel named the Sea Dragon to traverse the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.15 The crew collected samples to help scientists understand how plastics pickup other pollutants and transfer those through the food chain.
In one sample, the team counted more than 500 pieces of microplastic. This number extrapolates to half a million pieces in 1 square kilometer (a little over half a mile) of open sea. However, this does not account for nanoparticles showing up at the lab under the microscope. The team also found airborne microfibers, the result of washing clothes, which pose a risk to the human respiratory system.
Sarah Dudas, Ph.D., biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said out of the plastics they found, most of them were textile-based, or tiny filaments of fabric from clothing made from nylon and polyester.16 Unfortunately, much of this pollution is driven by “fast fashion,” which some estimate is the fifth most polluting industry in the world.17
The Ultimate Cost of Cheap Clothing
The cost of manufacturing clothing results in treating clothing as a single-use disposable item and creates a rapidly growing waste problem. In one study,18 commissioned by apparel maker Patagonia, data revealed the amount of microfiber released by synthetic jackets was dependent on the age of the clothing and whether the machine was a top or front loader.
The study found the amount released ranged between 1 gram and 7 grams depending on those factors.19 Wastewater treatment plants may filter out just a portion and the rest inevitably sneaks into the waterways and eventually into the ocean. Irregular shapes make it harder for marine life to excrete and contribute to physical blockages in their intestinal tract and chemical poisoning.
Another study20 led by the University of Barcelona quantified the presence of microfiber on marine floors from the Caribbean Sea to the Black Sea. They found the main types were natural cellulose (cotton and linen) and regenerated cellulose (rayon), while polyester was the most common synthetic fiber found.
Microfibers are also dumped into rivers and lakes. Sherri Mason, Ph.D., chemistry expert at State University of New York Fredonia, received the 23rd Heinz Award in the Public Policy category for her research and for raising awareness of the potential health impact of microplastics in freshwater, resulting in state, federal and international policy change.21
She has found microplastics are the most common type of debris in smaller bodies of water. Her concern extends to the ability of microfibers to absorb persistent organic pollutants and concentrate those in animal tissue.22
You May Be Consuming Plastic on a Daily Basis
The high amount of plastic production and waste has ultimately resulted in human consumption of microscopic plastic particles. One-third of the fish caught in the English Channel contain microbeads, as do 83 percent of the scampi sold in the U.K.23,24 Although the consequences are still largely unknown, it’s highly unlikely consumption of plastic is harmless.
Plastic may not be thoroughly eliminated and cannot degrade inside your system. Many of the chemicals used are known endocrine disruptors, known to deregulate hormones and genetic expression,25 cause organ damage26 and have been linked to obesity,27 heart disease and cancer.28
According to a 2016 National Geographic report,29 an estimated 4,360 tons of microbeads were used in personal care products sold in the European Union in 2012, all of which got flushed down the drain. These microplastic pellets travel through wastewater treatment plants, clogging waterways and filling the bellies of sea animals.
With this much plastic debris in our ecosystem, and our homes, researchers find humans ingest plastic particles on a regular basis. A team of researchers30 were able to capture up to 14 pieces of plastic at the end of each meal by placing petri dishes with sticky dust traps next to dinner plates at dinner time.
The source was household dust. Researchers extrapolated the data,31 finding the average person swallows an estimated 68,415 plastic fibers every year just in the dust landing on their plates during a meal.
Microplastic Particles in Food, Drink and Stool Samples
In other testing, researchers found most bottled water contained microplastic pollution they believed originated from the manufacturing process.32 On average, each bottle of water contained 325 pieces of microplastic per liter. Only 17 bottles were free of microplastic particles, but none tested free of plastic contaminants. The worst offender was Nestle Pure Life, having the most contaminated sample at 10,390 particles per liter.33
In an effort to determine ocean density of microplastic pollution, a study34 evaluated salt brands sampled worldwide and correlated where plastic pollution was found in the environment. The highest quantities were in Indonesia, which ranks as suffering the second worst level of plastic pollution in the world.
The research indicates many of the salt brands tested contain plastic pollution; only three, originating from Taiwan, China and France, did not contain microplastic particles. While salt is a necessary ingredient in a healthy diet, it’s important to choose the least contaminated product to reduce your exposure to microplastic pollution.
While scientists know we are consuming microplastic particles in our water, salt, food and dust, this fact was recently reconfirmed when researchers discovered microplastic particles in human stool samples.35 The samples were tested for the presence of 10 different type of plastics, nine of which were found.
On average, participants had 20 microplastic particles for every 10 grams of stool collected. Participants came from eight countries, and excreted particles measuring 50 micrometers (about the width of a strand of hair) to 500 micrometers.36
Become a Part of a Global Solution
Society has an affection for all things disposable, leaving a trail of death and destruction. You may be a part of a global solution by becoming a more conscious consumer and giving thought to the manufacturing of the products you buy. Each product also has an effect on you during use and on the environment after disposal.
Few are those who live a zero-waste lifestyle, but each of us may make definitive steps toward reducing plastic trash. Following are some of the most straightforward steps you may take to cut down on plastics usage in your life. Share them with a friend or two and the positive impacts will only continue to be magnified:
Avoid bottled water — Invest in a water filtration system and fill your own reusable glass bottles at home. Testing reveals many bottled water companies use tap water that may or may not have undergone additional filtration. With over 267 toxins found in public tap water, it’s worth the investment to install a high-quality filter and bring your own water wherever you go.
Reduce your use of all things plastic — Here are a few ideas to get started:
Avoid microfiber clothing and/or wash them as infrequently as possible — Select organic fabrics, refuse to participate in “fast fashion,” and buy clothing you truly need and will wear for a long time.
Stretchy fabrics and fleece items shed copious amounts of microscopic plastic fibers each time they’re washed. Due to their tiny size, these microfibers37 flow straight through the wastewater treatment plant without being caught.
Up to 700,000 particles of microfibers leave your washing machine with every wash,38 and testing shows synthetic microfibers make up 85 percent of shoreline debris worldwide.39 Once in the water column, this plastic microdebris blocks sunlight required for plankton and algae to thrive, and the ramifications of which reverberates throughout the entire food chain.
The fibers pose a health hazard to sea life consuming them, and since they bioaccumulate, they act like sponges, soaking up and concentrating toxins found in the environment like PCBs, pesticides and oil, making the animal — which could end up on your plate — even more toxic than it normally would be.
Wash synthetic clothing as irregularly as possible using a mild detergent. Line dry instead of putting them in the dryer, as the heat and agitation will break down fibers. Handwashing or using the gentle cycle with cold water will also minimize the shedding of fibers, as will using a front loading washing machine.
Recycle what you can — Take care to recycle and repurpose products whenever possible, and/or participate in “plastic drives” for local schools, where cash is paid by the pound.
Remember recyclables must never be placed in a plastic bag, as recycling facilities will simply send bagged items to a landfill.40 So, to ensure your recyclables actually get recycled, make sure you place the items loose in your recycle bin.
For more do’s and don’ts of recycling, see “Surprising Recycling Mistakes Most People Make.” You may also check out this Lifehacker article for more information about what you can and cannot recycle in general, over and beyond plastic.41