Plastic waste is a topic that’s come right to the top of the political agenda in recent months, with people of all political leanings coming together to do their best to stop polluting our planet’s beautiful oceans.
It’s great that we’re trying to make a difference, but sadly, we still have a long, long way to go.
The University of Exeter and Plymouth Marine Laboratory recently conducted a joint study, which examined 50 individual animals across 10 species of dolphins, seals, and whales. The results, recently published in Scientific Reports, show 5mm of microplastics in each animal, with 84 percent comprising synthetic fibers (man-made textiles and fabrics).
The remaining 16 percent were directly attributable to various kinds of plastic fragments, such as food packaging and bottles, and were mostly blue or black in color, Phys.org reported.
“It’s shocking — but not surprising — that every animal had ingested microplastics,” said lead author Sarah Nelms. “The number of particles in each animal was relatively low (average of 5.5 particles per animal), suggesting they eventually pass through the digestive system, or are regurgitated.”
Although some animals seem to be able to live relatively healthy lives with this plastic in their system — seemingly processing them without issue — the problem is much greater for others. The consequences of this modern phenomena surely affect countless other lifeforms and their ecosystems.
“We don’t know yet what effects the microplastics, or the chemicals on and in them, might have on marine mammals,” said Nelms. “More research is needed to better understand the potential impacts on animal health.”
The animals in this study that died of infectious diseases, for example, were found to contain a higher number of plastic particles in their guts than the rest of the animals. As head of the Marine Plastics group at PML, Dr. Penelope Lindeque is fairly disturbed by the results.
“It is disconcerting that we have found microplastic in the gut of every single animal we have investigated in this study,” she said. “Indeed, from our work over the years we have found microplastic in nearly all the species of marine animals we have looked at; from tiny zooplankton at the base of the marine food web to fish larvae, turtles and now dolphins, seals, and whales.”
Still, scientists don’t want to jump to a hasty conclusion here, and it’s unclear what it means for the bigger picture:
“We don’t yet know the effects of these particles on marine mammals,” said Lindeque. “Their small size means they may easily be expelled, but while microplastics are unlikely to be the main threat to these species, we are still concerned by the impact of the bacteria, viruses, and contaminants carried on the plastic.”
“This study provides more evidence that we all need to help reduce the amount of plastic waste released to our seas and maintain clean, healthy and productive oceans for future generations,” said Lindeque.
With 26 known species of marine mammals inhabiting British waters, it’s disturbing to see a study comprising nearly half of them to include dangerous plastics in their diets.
This is a man-made problem, and requires a man-made solution – we need to cut back as much as possible on our usage of single-use plastic. Together, we can be the change that we want to see.