A Deep, Deep Concern About Plastic Pollution
The deep sea has always been one of my favourite places - mysterious, out of our reach, full of unimaginable creatures like this fish with a see through head (a Barreleye Fish), the adorably weird Dumbo Octopus, and of course, the Blobfish. Who doesn’t love Blobfish?
I could go on all day, but unfortunately right now there are more pressing concerns. All these animals are now officially part of yet another habitat that we are filling up with our trash. Recent research tells us that maybe there is no longer anywhere left, on our entire planet, that is free from plastic pollution.
Scientists studying the ultra-deep trenches across the Pacific Ocean found that the inhabitants have been eating plastic. This includes the deepest point in the ocean, the Mariana Trench (over 11km down!) where 100% of animals studied had ingested plastic.
"These observations are the deepest possible record of microplastic occurrence and ingestion, indicating it is highly likely there are no marine ecosystems left that are not impacted by anthropogenic debris." - Dr Alan Jamieson, Newcastle University
The terrifying reach of earth’s most powerful creature (us) was documented at all six of the study sites - the Mariana, Japan, Izu-Bonin, Peru-Chile, New Hebrides, and Kermadec trenches. Overall 90 creatures were examined, and plastic ingestion ranged from 50 - 100%.
Previous research has shown the deep sea to be a major sink for plastic pollution (i.e. one of the mythical "away"s where our plastic goes when we stop using it), particularly in the sediment. There's also a lot of research into animals eating plastic, including some previously as deep as about 2000m. The authors of this study, Professor Alan Jamieson and his team, previously documented contaminants PCBs and PBDEs inside crustaceans in deep trenches (these plastic-related chemicals are the same ones found at alarming levels in orcas). This led them to want to know more about how chemicals could end up in such a remote location.
The fibres that they found included Rayon, Lyocell and Ramie (microfibres used in textiles) plus fibres like polyethylene (the most widely used plastic, used in bags, packaging & most household items), nylon (a plastic often used in clothes), polyamide (a type of nylon) & unidentified polyvinyls (similar to PVC).
“The deep sea is not only the ultimate sink for any material that descends from the surface, but it is also inhabited by organisms well adapted to a low food environment and these will often eat just about anything...This study has shown that manmade microfibres are culminating and accumulating in an ecosystem inhabited by species we poorly understand, cannot observe experimentally and have failed to obtain baseline data for prior to contamination." - Dr Alan Jamieson, Newcastle University
Some Handy Definitions
A breakdown of some of the science lingo.
Microplastic: generally plastic pieces smaller than 5mm. This includes broken down pieces of larger plastics, as well as microbeads (tiny plastic spheres used frequently in cosmetics like face wash), nurdles and microfibres.
Microfibre: small synthetic fibres / thread which shed from our clothes when they´re washed - more than 1900 fibres per wash, from just one item of clothing!!
The plastic was found very, very deep in the ocean. Inside animals that live there. This problem is so widespread that even way down at the bottom of the ocean, animals are eating our plastic.
This study didn´t look at blobfish, or dumbo octopus, or that crazy see-through-head guy, it looked mostly at crustaceans. So I understand why some of us may ask: why are these tiny creepy crawlies, down in the deep dark bottom of the sea, relevant at all to my life?
In my opinion, this research is hugely relevant, and terrifying. This is our waste, things we use every day, often just for a few minutes, that then last forever. That might be part of my toothbrush bristle down there. We are responsible for creating, and using, these items that nature cannot process. Additionally, these deep sea creatures are part of a broader ecosystem, our big old Planet Earth, in which nothing is isolated. The plastic sinking to the bottom of the sea is part of a much larger mass of trash at the surface, and we're adding more to this every single day.
“This is a very worrying find. Isolating plastic fibres from inside animals from nearly 11 kilometres deep (7miles) just shows the extent of the problem. Also, the number of areas we found this in, and the thousands of kilometre distances involved shows it is not just an isolated case, this is global.” - Dr Alan Jamieson, Newcastle University
For me personally, I hope to leave a legacy of awesomeness. Or at the very least, to leave this planet a little better than I found it, and to give something back to the magical oceans that I find so much joy in. Unfortunately though, it appears that future generations will recognize us by the slick of plastic we are so efficiently leaving in every ecosystem, species and community.
While I understand that you may be feeling a little overwhelmed right now, not to mention extremely concerned about the fate of the dumbo octopus, the good news is we already have all the solutions we need to solve this problem. All we need to do is start using them, which can start with you, right now.
The plastic types found were quite varied, which reflects the varied nature of plastic which we use every day. I don't expect you to immediately cut all plastic from your life. However, there are many extremely easy ways to start, from taking your own bag to the supermarket, to refusing to buy overly packaged products (you vote with your dollar), to saying no to straws. There's more things you can do here, but the possibilities are endless.
Additionally, many of the items found were microfibres. Here's some easy things you can do to release less of those:
- Buy clothes made from natural fibres like cotton - Don't support fast fashion - avoid cheaply made clothes - Buy a filter for your washing machine - Speak up: to friends, family, fashion designers, stores & government - Maybe buy a GuppyFriend (it catches microfibres) - Wash less - Learn more, for example by watching this video from Story of Stuff:
Most importantly: this problem is huge, and deep, but it's not over yet and all of us can make a difference.
You can read the press release here: