Plastic in Plankton

Images of microplastic ingestion by plankton. From Cole, Matthew, et al. “Microplastic ingestion by zooplankton.” Environmental science & technology (2013).

plastic plankton


Laboratory studies that have shown ingestion in marine species.

Zooplankton: Cole et al. 2013
Invertebrates: Thompson et al. 2004; Besseling et al. 2013



And here it is on film


Dirty Beaches, Polluted Sea

Most plastics are oil derived and non biodegradable. Which means plastics last for decades, centuries possibly forever (read more here about plastic how it is made and the different types). We are using this everlasting product to make items that are used once and then discarded. Items that end up as litter.

Since the ocean is downstream, much of the plastic trash generated on land ends up there. ” It has been estimated that 6.4 million tons of debris end up in the world’s oceans every year and that some 60 to 80 percent of that debris, or 3.8 to 5 million tons, is improperly discarded plastic litter “. Encyclopedia Brittanica.

How Much Trash?

Upwards of 9 million tons of plastic enters the world’s oceans each year (at the going rate, there will be more plastic in the water than fish by 2050)

It has been estimated that around 80% of marine debris is from land-based sources and the remaining 20% is from ocean based sources. Greenpeace Report.

According to Stemming the Tide, a study released by the Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey Center for Business and Environment, 60 percent of plastic pollution in the ocean comes from the following countries;

  • China dumps an estimated 1.32 to 3.53 million tons of plastic which accounts for 30 percent of all of the plastic debris
  • Indonesia comes second with  0.48 and 1.29 million tons of plastic marine waste
  • Philippines in third place followed by Vietnam and then Sri Lanka.
  • You can read a good summary of this report here.

    Trash Vortexes Or The 5 Gyres

    Dotted around the world are  5 great trash vortexes. They are right out there in the middle of the sea and they are huge.   Vast expanses of debris  held in place by swirling underwater currents. Read more here
    See lots of pictures documenting plastic beach pollution here…

    Dirty Beaches

    Everyday tons of trash gets washed ashore. Many beaches look more like rubbish dumps than a place to go paddling which impacts on tourism and local businesses. Local authorities, industry and coastal communities spend approximately £14 million a year to clean up beach litter in England and Wales alone (Environment Agency, 2004).

    Dirty Sea Bed

    And that is the plastic that is washed up. In fact around 70 percent of discarded plastic sinks to the bottom. In the North Sea alone, Dutch scientists have found around 600,000 tonnes of plastic smothering the sea bed and the bottom feeders who live there.

    Poisoned Sea Creatures

    It is affects marine life in other ways. Here’s a troubling statistic “One-third of fish caught off the south-west coast of England have traces of plastic contamination from sources including sanitary products and carrier bags”. You can read more in the Plymouth University study, published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.
    Researchers warn that ” garbage can injure creatures like sea sponges and impair their ability to breathe and absorb food. Moreover, chemicals in plastic can have toxic effects and alter gas exchange on the seafloor.” (live science)

  • Microplastic Pollution

    Of course plastic breaks, tears and cracks. It weathers and sunlight makes it brittle, It falls apart – it degrades – but only into smaller pieces of plastic.

    This degrading process can go on indefinitely it seems. Particles of plastic of 20 microns in diameter (a width thinner than a human hair) have been found in the oceans and are being found in increasing amounts. As reported by Dr Richard Thompson at the University of Plymouth .

    Other tiny bits of plastic come from synthetic clothes which shed fibres when being washed.
    Exfoliating scrubs often contain tiny plastic beads which are washed off and washed out to sea.
    Even toothpaste can have added plastic.
    These tiny pieces of plastics are called micro plastics.
    They are being eaten by bottom feeders and are now entering the food chain.

  • You can read about micro plastics here,

  • Toxic plastic pellets

    Plastic particles in the sea also attract persistent organic Pollutants (POPs). POPs are a small set of toxic chemicals that remain intact in the environment for long periods and accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals. Plastics have been shown to concentrate pollutants up to a million times their level in the surrounding seawater and then deliver them to the species that ingest them (Encyclopedia Brittanica). Bottom feeders eat the plastic pellets and so the POPs enter the food chain.

    Then there are the chemicals used to make plastic. Many of these are toxic and can leach out. Research is showing that chemicals absorbed by the plastic are transferred to the fish.

    Islands in the stream

    Floating plastic can carry animals and vegetation way beyond their natural habitat potentially leading to the introduction of invasive species into vulnerable habitats.

  • BoycottPeople have been dumping rubbish in the sea for centuries. What has changed is the nature of the rubbish. Using a non-biodegradable product with a lifespan of centuries to make disposable items is crazy. Let’s stop using plastic to make everlasting litter. And rather then wait for governments to act or the clean up bill get even bigger I invite you to join me in a plastic boycott. You can find loads of plastic free alternatives listed here on my blog.

Persistant Organic Pollutants

I was under the impression that pops was some kind of horrid Yorkshire dish involving hot milk and bits of bread but this is not the case. Rather POPs are a small set of toxic chemicals that remain intact in the environment for long periods and accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals.

POPs stands for persistent organic pollutants, also classed as PBTs (Persistent, Bioaccumulative and Toxic) or TOMPs (Toxic Organic Micro Pollutants.)

  • Persistant because they are are resistant to natural biodegradation. They do not break down and can last for decades.
  • Pollutants because they are highly toxic, causing death, disease, and birth defects among humans and animals.

plastic in fishHow can you avoid them? You cant! They travel through the environment through the atmosphere (windbourne), the food web (by being eaten) and through the waterways by attaching themselves to particles in water. POPs released in one part of the world can be transported many hundreds of miles away from the original source. POPs have been discovered in remote regions where they have never been used, the middle of oceans and Antarctica.

Pops can enter the food chain at the most basic of levels. “Planktonic organisms are the first link for pollutant transfer in the pelagic system. Traditionally, primary producers, (all those organisms that are able to synthesise organic matter capturing the energy of the sunlight) such asphytoplankton have been considered as the initial step for transport of POPs into food webs. Recent studies, however, point out that the capacity of uptake of bacteria is an important route for POPs transportation via the microbial food chain. The microbial food chain is the link between microorganisms in the sea.” From GPA website.

Because POPs are not soluble in water but readily absorbed and retained in fatty tissue of animals, this leads to a process called Biomagnification, also known as bioamplification or biological magnification. This is, is the increase in concentration of a substance that occurs in a food chain as a consequence of:

Food chain in a swedish lake. From the bottom:...

Food chain in a swedish lake. From the bottom: freshwater shrimp, bleak, perch, northern pike, osprey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Persistence (can’t be broken down by environmental processes)
  • Food chain energetics
  • Low (or nonexistent) rate of internal degradation/excretion of the substance (often due to water-insolubility)

Which means as POPs pass up the food chain, they increase exponentially. For example lets say that each bit of plankton contains 1 POP. A worm eats 5 plankton so now it contain 5 POB, 5 worms are in turn is eaten by a fish (25) and 3 fish are caught by a fisherman (75). The higher up the food chain the more you absorb.

It is claimed that plastic particles in the sea attract POPs.

Related articles

Where Do Pops Come From

Most are created by humans in industrial processes, either intentionally or as byproducts.

Many POPs are currently or were in the past used as pesticides. Others are the result of industrial processes. Including plastic manufacture and disposal

In May 1995, the United Nations Environment Programme Governing Council (GC) began investigating POPs. and 2001 the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants was formed to organise the severe restriction of their production, by the international community.

State parties to the Stockholm Convention on P...

State parties to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. Italiano: Stati ratificanti della Convenzione di Stoccolma sugli inquinanti organici persistenti. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These are related to the plastic industries


They are of concern because of their highly toxic potential.

Once dioxins have entered the body, they endure a long time because of their chemical stability and their ability to be absorbed by fat tissue, where they are then stored in the body.

Their half-life in the body is estimated to be seven to eleven years.

In the environment, dioxins tend to accumulate in the food chain. The higher in the animal food chain one goes, the higher the concentration of dioxins.

Doixin is a known human carcinogen and the most potent synthetic carcinogen ever tested in laboratory animals. Find out lots more here.

Dioxins occur as by-products in the incineration of chlorine-containing substances such as PVC (polyvinyl chloride), in the chlorine bleaching of paper, and from natural sources such as volcanoes and forest fires, waste incineration, and backyard trash burning, and herbicide manufacturing. More on burning plastic here.

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) compounds are used as additives in paint, carbonless copy paper, and plastics.

Of the 209 different types of PCBs, 13 exhibit a dioxin-like toxicity. Their persistence in the environment corresponds to the degree of chlorination, and half-lives can vary from 10 days to one-and-a-half years.

PCBs are toxic to fish, killing them at higher doses and causing spawning failures at lower doses. Research also links PCBs to reproductive failure and suppression of the immune system in various wild animals, such as seals and mink.

Read more about PCBs here.

And here are some more…

Aldrin is an organochlorine insecticide that was widely used until the 1970s, when it was banned in most countries.

Chlordane a pesticide,  It was sold in the United States from 1948 to 1988, both as a dust and an emulsified solution. It is now banned.

DDT, First synthesized in 1874, DDT’s insecticidal action was discovered by the Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller in 1939.  A worldwide ban was formalised under the Stockholm Convention, but its limited use in disease vector control continues to this day and remains controversial.

Dieldrin  an alternative to DDT, and a highly effective insecticide widely used during the 1950s to early 1970s. Long-

term exposure has proven toxic to a very wide range of animals including humans.It is now banned in most of the world.

Endrin  A pesticide. Currently, the use of endrin is banned in many countries.

Heptachlor was used as an insecticide. Animals exposed to Heptachlor epoxide during gestation and infancy are found to have changes in nervous system and immune function. Higher doses of Heptachlor when exposed to newborn animals caused decrease in body weight and death.

Hexachlorobenzene, a fungicide now banned globally under the Stockholm Convention

Mirex, is a chlorinated hydrocarbon that was commercialized as an insecticide and later banned because of its impact on the environment.

toxaphene is an insecticide. It is a mixture of closely related substances whose use is now banned in most of the world due to concerns of toxicity.

Since then, this list has generally been accepted to include such substances as carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and certain brominated flame-retardants, as well as some organometallic compounds such as tributyltin (TBT).

Thanks to Wikipedia and the worldbank


plastic kills plankton

Microplastics may be killing teeny, tiny beasties. Particles of plastic of 20 microns in diameter (a width thinner than a human hair) called micro plastics and are being found in the oceans in ever-increasing quantities.

College of the Atlantic senior Marina Garland has been studying the problem.

“According to Garland, lab studies have been conducted indicating that aquatic microorganisms such as plankton can also mistake micro plastic particles for food and subsequently be killed by the adverse effects of the particle on the organism’s digestive tract. Additionally, said Garland, various toxins are known to cling to plastic particles through a process known as adsorption. As a result, plastic flotsam collected from oceans is often a concentrated source for such toxic chemicals as the pesticide DDT. Microorganisms that ingest the toxic plastic particles are often consumed by larger organisms, which then become toxic themselves. The concentration of toxicity in marine organisms continues to increase at the higher levels of the food chain through a process known as biomagnification.”

You can see her presentation here

Find out more about micro plastics here

Image of plankton from Pinterest




Microplastic in the sea. Studies.

From the BBC News

Dr Richard Thompson at the University of Plymouth researches what happens when plastic breaks down (degrades) in seawater

They have identified plastic particles of around 20 microns – thinner than the diameter of a human hair.
In 2004 their study reported the incidence of the particles had been increasing over the years.

They have found plastic particles smaller than grains of sand.

They estimate there are 300,000 items of plastic per sq km of sea surface, and 100,000 per sq km of seabed.

Thompson and his team conducted experiments on three species of filter feeders and found that the barnacle, the lugworm and the common amphipod or sand-hopper all  readily ingested plastic as they fed along the seabed.

They wanted to  establish if chemicals can leach out of degraded plastic and if plastic absorbs other contaminants such as PCBs and other polymer additives.

“The plastics industry’s response is that much of the research is speculative at this stage, and that there is very little evidence that this transfer of chemicals is taking place in the wild.It says it is doing its bit by replacing toxic materials used as stabilisers and flame retardants with less harmful substances.
Whatever the findings eventually show, there is little that can be done now to deal with the vast quantities of plastic already in our oceans. It will be there for decades to come.”

You can read more about the problems of micro plastic pollution here.

More Science

And if you want more data on the problem here are just a few of the hundreds of studies being done. Thanks to Fabiano of for keeping us well informed.

Jan Zalasiewicz, Colin N. Waters, Juliana Ivar do Sul, Patricia L. Corcoran, Anthony D. Barnosky, Alejandro Cearreta, Matt Edgeworth, Agnieszka Gałuszka, Catherine Jeandel, Reinhold Leinfelder, J.R. McNeill, Will Steffen, Colin Summerhayes, Michael Wagreich, Mark Williams, Alexander P. Wolfe, Yasmin Yonan, The geological cycle of plastics and their use as a stratigraphic indicator of the Anthropocene, Anthropocene, Available online 18 January 2016, ISSN 2213-3054,
Abstract: The rise of plastics since the mid-20th century, both as a material element of modern life and as a growing environmental pollutant, has been widely described. Their distribution in both the terrestrial and marine realms suggests that they are a key geological indicator of the Anthropocene, as a distinctive stratal component. Most immediately evident in terrestrial deposits, they are clearly becoming widespread in marine sedimentary deposits in both shallow- and deep-water settings. They are abundant and widespread as macroscopic fragments and virtually ubiquitous as microplastic particles; these are dispersed by both physical and biological processes, not least via the food chain and the ‘faecal express’ route from surface to sea floor. Plastics are already widely dispersed in sedimentary deposits, and their amount seems likely to grow several-fold over the next few decades. They will continue to be input into the sedimentary cycle over coming millennia as temporary stores – landfill sites – are eroded. Plastics already enable fine time resolution within Anthropocene deposits via the development of their different types and via the artefacts (‘technofossils’) they are moulded into, and many of these may have long-term preservation potential when buried in strata.
Keywords: Anthropocene; Plastics; Stratigraphy

Carme Alomar, Fernando Estarellas, Salud Deudero, Microplastics in the Mediterranean sea: Deposition in coastal shallow sediments, spatial variation and preferential grain size, Marine Environmental Research, Available online 18 January 2016, ISSN 0141-1136,
Abstract: Marine litter loads in sea compartments are an emergent issue due to their ecological and biological consequences. This study addresses microplastic quantification and morphological description to test spatial differences along an anthropogenic gradient of coastal shallow sediments and further on to evaluate the preferential deposition of microplastics in a given sediment grain fraction. Sediments from Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) contained the highest concentrations of microplastics (MPs): up to 0.90±0.10 MPs/g suggesting the transfer of microplastics from source areas to endpoint areas. In addition, a high proportion of microplastic filaments were found close to populated areas whereas fragment type microplastics were more common in MPAs. There was no clear trend between sediment grain size and microplastic deposition in sediments, although microplastics were always present in two grain size fractions: 2mm>x>1mm and 1mm>x 0.5mm.
Keywords: Marine litter; MPAs; Anthropogenic gradient; Sieve fractions; Contamination; Balearic islands

Teresa Rocha-Santos, Armando C. Duarte, A critical overview of the analytical approaches to the occurrence, the fate and the behavior of microplastics in the environment, TrAC Trends in Analytical Chemistry, Available online 11 December 2014, ISSN 0165-9936,
Abstract: Plastics can be found in food packaging, shopping bags, and household items, such as toothbrushes and pens, and facial cleansers. Due to the high disposability and low recovery of discharged materials, plastics materials have become debris accumulating in the environment. Microplastics have a dimension <5 mm and possess physico-chemical properties (e.g., size, density, color and chemical composition) that are key contributors to their bioavailability to organisms. This review addresses the analytical approaches to characterization and quantification of microplastics in the environment and discusses recent studies on their occurrence, fate, and behavior. This critical overview includes a general assessment of sampling and sample handling, and compares methods for morphological and physical classification, and methodologies for chemical characterization and quantification of the microplastics. Finally, this review addresses the advantages and the disadvantages of these techniques, and comments on future applications and potential research interest within this field.
Keywords: Debris; Detection; Environment; Marine environment; Microplastic; Plastic; Sampling; Seawater; Sediment; Water

Note to users: Accepted manuscripts are Articles in Press that have been peer reviewed and accepted for publication by the Editorial Board of this publication. They have not yet been copy edited and/or formatted in the publication house style, and may not yet have the full ScienceDirect functionality, e.g., supplementary files may still need to be added, links to references may not resolve yet etc. The text could still change before final publication.

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Reisser J, Proietti M, Shaw J and Pattiaratchi C (2014) Ingestion of plastics at sea: does debris size really matter? Front. Mar. Sci. 1:70. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2014.00070

Keywords: microplastics, marine debris, plastic ingestion, zooplankton grazing, copepods

Reisser, J., Slat, B., Noble, K., du Plessis, K., Epp, M., Proietti, M., de Sonneville, J., Becker, T., and Pattiaratchi, C.: The vertical distribution of buoyant plastics at sea, Biogeosciences Discuss., 11, 16207-16226, doi:10.5194/bgd-11-16207-2014, 2014.

Abstract. Millimeter-sized plastics are numerically abundant and widespread across the world’s ocean surface. These buoyant macroscopic particles can be mixed within the upper water column due to turbulent transport. Models indicate that the largest decrease in their concentration occurs within the first few meters of water, where subsurface observations are very scarce. By using a new type of multi-level trawl at 12 sites within the North Atlantic accumulation zone, we measured concentrations and physical properties of plastics from the air–seawater interface to a depth of 5 m, at 0.5 m intervals. Our results show that plastic concentrations drop exponentially with water depth, but decay rates decrease with increasing Beaufort scale. Furthermore, smaller pieces presented lower rise velocities and were more susceptible to vertical transport. This resulted in higher depth decays of plastic mass concentration (mg m−3) than numerical concentration (pieces m−3). Further multi-level sampling of plastics will improve our ability to predict at-sea plastic load, size distribution, drifting pattern, and impact on marine species and habitats.

Review Status
This discussion paper is under review for the journal Biogeosciences (BG).