For more than 40 years, deep sea creatures off the coast of Scotland have been consuming microplastics, according to a new study published in the scientific journal Environmental Pollution.
Between 1976 and 2015, researchers collected starfish and sea snails that live more than 6,500 feet underwater in an area known as the Rockwall Trough off the Western Isles, the Telegraph reports.
The study found that 48% of the creatures had microplastics in their guts and that plastic consumption was consistent throughout the time period. It’s likely that similar field research in other parts of the world would yield similar results due to the pervasive nature of plastic in the world’s oceans.
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"Mass production of plastics only began in the 1940s and 1950s, so it would be reasonable to expect less plastic in our earlier samples, with a subsequent upward trend to the present-day levels," Winnie Courtene-Jones, lead author and doctoral student at the University of the Highlands and Islands and SAMS, told the Telegraph.
"But we haven't seen that,” she said. “In fact, the level of microplastic ingestion is remarkably similar throughout the time series.”
The research reaffirms two phenomenon — that plastic blankets the world’s oceans and animals are probably going to accidentally ingest it.
On the first matter, plastic has been discovered in the most remote parts of Antarctica, and there are an estimated 50 trillion microplastics in the world’s oceans.
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And as far as animals eating it goes, it’s not a good thing. In fact, a different team of researchers discovered that as soon as a turtle accidentally ingests a piece of plastic, its chance of dying increases by 20%. Similarly, more than 700 animal species have been found to be harmed by plastic pollution, and it’s likely that all marine life is negatively impacted by this pollution, especially because plastic becomes a magnet for toxins in the wild.
It’s not just sea creatures that are eating plastic, either. Humans ingest plastic from food, water, salt, and even through the air. When a team of researchers examined the feces of people from multiple countries, they found plastic in every sample.
“This is the first study of its kind and confirms what we have long suspected, that plastics ultimately reach the human gut,” said Philipp Schwabl, a researcher from the Medical University of Vienna, who led the feces study.
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“The smallest microplastic particles are capable of entering the bloodstream, the lymphatic system, and may even reach the liver,” he said. “Now that we have the first evidence for microplastics inside humans, we need further research to understand what this means for human health.”
The discovery of microplastics at the bottom of the ocean shows how intractable the problem of plastic pollution has become. In recent years, more than 60 countries have drafted legislation meant to curb plastic waste, but more has to be done to prevent plastic production from climbing 40% over the next decade.
These efforts tackle plastic pollution at the root, and other initiatives are going after the problem’s offshoots by directly cleaning up the ocean.
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Organizations like the Ocean Cleanup Project are pulling large quantities of plastic from the oceans, and companies like Adidas are recovering it for use in consumer products.
Both tactics have to work in tandem in the years ahead. Otherwise, plastic particles will outweigh fish in the near future.