Dec 28 - Plastic Marine Pollution May be Linked to Ecosystem Pathogens & Toxins

There's a new and mysterious ecosystem in our oceans, and scientists are calling it the plastisphere.

According to the LA Times, this ecosystem is started after bacteria have colonized tiny bits of plastic degraded from larger pieces of plastic litter and floating in our waters. The microscopic organisms are then consumed by larger animals, moving the plastic and any toxins coating the plastic up the food chain, and creating the ecosytem.

Scientists are studying the new system and believe there is cause for concern for "the next ocean frontier". Many of the colonizing bacteria are new to science and could be pathogens that have traveled from long distances through floating debris. Moreover, the breakdown of certain plastics may be leaching any associated chemicals into the water.

Studies from as far back as 1972 indicate that bacteria can travel through floating plastic particles--which lasts longer in the water than particles made from wood and other degradable materials. More recent studies indicate that plastic particles can attract and absorb toxins in surrounding waters to their surfaces and cause harmful effects in organisms when ingested, including fish.

A three year study, as reported this past June in the Environmental Science and Technology journal, found more than 1,000 microorganisms attached to plastic pieces. One particular type of microplastic appeared to attract a specific group of bacteria known to cause cholera.

And last October, marine biologists reported that at least a third of barnacles collected during a study had consumed plastic. Such incidences of plastic pollution are not limited to our oceans; microplastics are showing up in our Great Lakes as well.

About 80% of the plastic pollution in our waters originated from land. We need to rethink our reliance on single-use and unnecessary plastics. Learn more about our work on plastic pollution.