We are delighted to have a guest blog by Marine Plastic Scientist Winnie Courtene-Jones. She tells us about her research into how micro plastics are reaching even the deep seas. Our latest T-shirt, the brittle star was created to help raise awareness of how echinoderms are being affected by plastics.
Microplastics are eaten by the creatures of the deep!
By Winnie Courtene-Jones, Marine plastic scientist and doctoral research student.
Plastics are a versatile and hard-wearing material that we encounter numerous times in our day-to-day lives. Up to 8 million tons of plastics enter our oceans each year. Due to their durability, plastics are extremely resistant to degradation, meaning they are able to accumulate in the environment.
Blue Planet 2 showed us poignant images illustrating the harmful impacts that larger plastic items can cause to marine life. However, there is another aspect to plastic pollution that goes largely unseen – microplastics.
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are small pieces of plastic which arise from the fragmentation of larger items, such as plastic bottles, bags or food packaging, littering the environment. Microplastics also come from the abrasion of car tyres on road surfaces, flakes of paint from road markings or the hulls of boats. They also come from fibres released from synthetic clothing (e.g. acrylic, polyester) during their wear or washing. A group of scientists found that up to 700,000 fibres can be released from an average sized 6 kg load of washing. While many of these fibres can be removed in waste water treatment works, some are so small they pass through the filters. If we scale this up to all the households in the world we’re talking about a lot of fibres being discharged to the environment!
Examples of microplastic fibres and fragment found in the environment
So what happens to these fibres and microplastics?
Regardless of how they enter into the waterway, either through storm or household drains, or carried by rivers and streams, all pathways lead to the ocean. Our oceans cover nearly three quarters of our planet and are interconnected. This means microplastics can be distributed around the globe, carried by ocean currents. Microplastics are so small that they can be accidentally eaten by a huge variety of animals, from the microscopic zooplankton at the base of the food chain, all the way up to the mighty whales.
Microplastics don’t just remain in the surface waters, but they sink down through the water column and into the deep sea. This largely unexplored habitat makes up a staggering 90% of our oceans! When microplastics reach the seafloor there is nowhere else for them to go. They can accumulate here and the animals which live on the seabed are particularly at risk of encountering and eating microplastics.
Research I undertook at the Scottish Association for Marine Science set out to find out the prevalence of microplastics in a region of the North Atlantic Ocean called the Rockall Trough. The seafloor here is 2500m deep.
Despite the great depth, microplastics were found throughout the ecosystem: in water, on the seafloor sediment and in the invertebrates living here; and somewhat surprisingly the concentrations were similar to much shallower coastal areas! One of the animals studied was the deep-sea brittle star, Ophiomusium lymani, as illustrated above. They are specially adapted to withstand the crushing pressures of living at these great depths. The brittle stars were found to have eaten large quantities of microplastic, identified as mostly fibres of polyester and nylon.
Even more surprising was that these brittle stars, which have been collected from this region over the last four decades, were all found to have consumed microplastics. Even individuals collected in the 1970s, only 20 years after the mass production of plastics began, had microplastics within their guts. This illustrates for the first-time, the long-term occurrence of microplastic pollution in the deep sea.
So what can we do?
The best way is to reduce the use of disposable plastics (bottles/cups, bags, plastic straws, food wrapping) in our everyday lives.
Try not to buy ‘fast fashion’. Remember synthetic clothes are a huge source of microplastic fibres, organic cotton and other natural fibres as a better alternative to synthetic clothing. Opt for making what you have last, supporting charity shops or even swapping clothes with friends.
Make sure to refuse plastics where you can, and reuse, repurpose and finally recycle any you do use.
Finally, there are many pressures facing our world – these include climate change, food security, water shortage etc. Perhaps a solution would be more generally to buy less (whether these are plastics or not) Take care of them and make them last.
About Winnie Courtene-Jones
Winnie Courtene-Jones grew up in west Wales, exploring the coastlines of Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire which sparked her passion for the natural world and particularly about all things marine. She is in the final stages of completing her PhD at the Scottish Association for Marine Science, Oban; where she researches microplastic pollution in the deep sea ecosystem. Her scientific interest lies in understanding the long-term fate of microplastics in our oceans. In 2017 she was awarded the P1 Foundation ‘National Student of the Year’ for her novel research. Winnie also chairs and participates in a consortium working to support young scientists throughout Europe.
More information: https://www.sams.ac.uk/people/research-students/winnie-courtene-jones/