What You Don’t Want To Know About Plastic

Are you tired of hearing about the evils of plastic? I hope not, because there is some new research (and it’s not very good news).

When large plastic items like food containers break down, they tend to form microplastics: Small pieces less than five millimeters long.  These pieces are so minute they end up everywhere. Consequently, they are easily ingested by wildlife. And since the surface of most of our home planet is covered by water, a lot of it finds its way into the oceans.

What does that mean for marine life? A recent study has examined how synthetic particles of all sizes are ending up in fish, including the species we eat. This study found that, so far, 386 marine fish species are known to have ingested plastic debris, including 210 commercially important species. In addition, plastic consumption by fish is on the rise, both because detection methods for microplastics are improving and plastic pollution in the environment continues to increase.

Unfortunately, these results were not unexpected. The first scientific discovery of this problem came from a seabird’s stomach in 1969. Since then, over 100 scientific papers have investigated plastic ingestion in fish. But since each of these studies had a limited objective, someone needed to put all the pieces together. Hence this study, which examined every scientific paper on plastic ingestion by marine fish from 1972 to 2019, thus creating the largest existing database on the subject.

To simplify a bit, the big picture is marine fish are consuming plastic all around the world: Of 555 fish species studied in 129 scientific papers, more than 2/3 had ingested plastic. Also, fish consumption of plastic is increasing. A bit of good news is plastic ingestion is not universal: The flip side is 1/3 of the studied species weren’t plastic consumers.

So what’s the impact? We really don’t know what happens when plastic is ingested, either in fish or in us after we eat the fish. However, there is evidence that microplastics and even smaller particles (nanoplastics) can move into a fish’s muscle tissue, which is what we normally eat. So these results show just how much more research is needed, especially concerning what happens when plastic particles find their way into our bodies.

Until we know, I think it would be a really good idea to cut down as much as possible on the use of plastic.

For more details, see “Hundreds of fish species, including many we eat, are consuming plastic” at https://earthsky.org/earth/hundreds-fish-species-consume-microplastics-including-human-food?.

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