Microplastic waste: This massive (tiny) threat to sea life is now in every ocean

Researchers warn that only drastic action to eliminate it at source will protect marine wildlife for future generations

SCIENCE EDITOR

Pollution of the oceans by tiny pieces of plastic debris is now so widespread that only radical action to eliminate the waste at source can limit further damage to marine wildlife, according to scientists.

Microplastics, which can range in size from being invisible to the naked eye to just a few millimetres in diameter, are now turning up in all the world's major oceans including the Arctic and Antarctic, and it is no longer feasible to think it may be possible to simply "clear up the mess", researchers add.

Most people are aware of the visible plastic pollution such as discarded bottles and other waste items washed up on beaches, but it is the invisible plastics that are likely to pose the bigger risks to animals and plants, say marine scientists Karen Lavender Law and Richard Thompson. And they warn that the problems will only get worse unless drastic action is taken to curb the sale of disposable plastic products worldwide and dispel the idea that plastic waste can be just thrown away.

"Microplastics are likely the most numerically abundant items of plastic debris in the ocean today, and quantities will inevitably increase, in part because large, single plastic items ultimately degrade into millions of microplastic pieces," according to Lavender and Thompson's report in the journal Science.

"Given concerns over microplastics, the temptation may be to 'clean up the mess', but substantial removal of microplastic debris from the environment is not feasible. Identification and elimination of some of the major inputs of plastic waste is a more promising route, as is reduced consumption and the recognition of plastic waste as a [reusable] resource," the report says.

Microplastics are easily ingested by fish, mussels and other sea animals, and there is growing scientific evidence linking them to the passage of deadly, persistent chemicals through the environment, such as the pesticide DDT and toxic PCBs, making them more concentrated when they come into contact with marine life, the report warns.

Professor Thompson, a marine biologist at Plymouth University, first coined the term "microplastics" in 2004. It includes larger plastic items that have been degraded down in size as well as tiny plastic "micro-beads" used to exfoliate skin in soaps, creams and other products, which are deliberately designed to be washed down the drain.

"We know that a range of organisms will eat these microplastics and the prevalence in populations of some species may reach 80 per cent," he said. "Microplastic beads may also lead to the transfer of chemical contaminants into the animals that ingest the plastic. This is in addition to the physical damage done by the plastic itself."

Professor Law, a marine biologist at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, was one of the first to describe the widespread plastic contamination in the North Atlantic Ocean from data gathered over more than 25 years. She said: "Our scientific understanding of this environmental problem is accelerating rapidly, with many new research efforts that go well beyond simply documenting the presence of plastic in the ocean."

The problem is not insurmountable, Professor Thompson said, as long as people are aware of how important it is to limit the amount of plastic waste that is needlessly thrown away. "We all use plastics every day, so whether it's a plastic bag we choose not to take home from the supermarket or a bottle that we recycle, ultimately it will be the collective actions of the many that will make the difference," he added.

The Marine Conservation Society said recent figures show the amount of plastic waste on British beaches – from plastic bottles and carrier bags to condoms and nappies – is now higher than at any time over the past 20 years. The charity hopes to recruit 10,000 volunteers this summer to help clear the waste in a mass-participation "Great British Beach Clean".

A survey by the society last year found an average of 2,309 pieces of litter for every kilometre of coastline – a 10-year record, it said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'