a group of people doing a beach clean up with lots of plastic on the beach Photo by Ocean Cleanup Group on Unsplash

#F^%$ Plastic! Two New Studies Show Troubling Impacts Of Plastic On The Planet. From freshwater ecosystems to ocean spray, plastic is simply everywhere.

I feel like plastic is fully assimilated into our world. You can’t go for a walk or hike without seeing it mindlessly littered along a path. The other day my hubby and I went for walk in our neighbourhood, as an experiment I wanted to see how many steps we could take from the front door until we stumbled upon a piece of plastic, it was nine steps to the end of the driveway, and there it was a plastic fork lying on the floor as if it belongs there. We are so used to seeing disagreed plastic litter that’s it’s basically become the norm and because of this “acceptance,” we are not really grasping the true nature this item has on the planet.

Two new alarming studies highlight the issues even further.

a bird sitting in water Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash[/caption]

A species of river bird is swallowing hundreds of plastic fibres every day via their insect prey, research by Cardiff University and the Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter has shown.

Dippers are also inadvertently feeding thousands of plastic fibres contained in insects to their nest-bound chicks during their development. The aquatic songbirds depend on river insects for their food supply, so widespread contamination of insects by plastic means they cannot avoid this source of pollution. This new study is the first to show clearly that microplastics – pieces of plastic debris under 5mm in size – are being passed through river food webs from insects to predators such as dippers. The research is published in the journal Global Change Biology.

The academics said the transfer of so many plastic fragments to nestling birds was startling – and there was an urgent need to further understand the consequences of this plastic intake. Professor Steve Ormerod, Co-Director of Cardiff University’s Water Research Institute and lead author, said: “In almost 40 years of researching rivers and dippers, I never imagined that one day our work would reveal these spectacular birds to be at risk from the ingestion of plastics – a measure of how this pollution problem has crept upon us.”

“The same features that make dippers so wonderfully adapted as the world’s only songbirds able to dive and feed on river insects, also mean that they can have no escape from this enormous source of pollution for decades to come. The team, from Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences and Water Research Institute, and Exeter’s Greenpeace labs, examined droppings and regurgitated pellets from adults and nestling dippers.

a bird sitting on a leaves in the road Photo by Geronimo Giqueaux on Unsplash

They found microplastic fragments in roughly half of 166 samples, at 14 of 15 sites studied, and in the greatest concentrations in more urbanized locations. Most were fibres from textiles or building materials. Although microplastics appear to be voided by the birds as fast as they are ingested, the team stressed the need to understand more fully any adverse or toxic effects from such a large daily intake.

Previous research by Cardiff University scientists has shown that half of the insects in south Wales rivers contain microplastic fragments.

Joe D’Souza, who began the investigation as an undergraduate student at Cardiff, said: “Amidst concern about the oceans, it’s increasingly clear that plastics also affect organisms in rivers: these are a major route between land and sea for microplastics such as clothing fibres, tyre dust and other fragmenting plastic waste. “The fact that so many river insects are contaminated makes it inevitable that fish, birds and other predators will pick up these polluted prey – but this is the first time that this type of transfer through food webs has been shown clearly in free-living river animals.”

Dr David Santillo, Greenpeace Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, said: “Our analysis showed that the dippers in the study were ingesting around 200 plastic particles daily from the insects they consume. More than 75% of the fragments we found were less than 0.5mm in size, but some were up to several millimetres in length.

“We have known for some time that microplastics including polyester, polypropylene and nylon, pollute Britain’s rivers. But our forensic approach now reveals how extensively these materials contaminate freshwater food webs. The impact of the chemicals and pollutants in these plastics on dippers and their chicks remains to be seen.”

Professor Ormerod added: “In the depths of the current, global circumstances around Covid-19, the problems of plastic pollution remind us that other, major environmental problems haven’t gone away; we can’t afford to take our eyes off these other pressures and what they mean for the way we build our future lives within safe environmental limits.” A second study has found that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of microplastics could be blowing ashore on the sea breeze every year.

a family walking on the beach

Photo by Natalya Zaritskaya on Unsplash

While awareness of plastic pollution in the oceans has been growing in recent years it has been assumed until now that plastic which ends up in the sea stays there.

Now this new study by the University of Strathclyde and Observatoire Midi-Pyrénées (CNRS-University of Toulouse), has found evidence that microplastics could be ejected by sea spray, released into the atmosphere and transported back onto land. The researchers reviewed evidence from existing literature relevant to this theory and followed up with a pilot study that analyzed microplastics in sea spray at Mimizan beach in Aquitaine on the south-west Atlantic coast of France.

Over the course of a week, the team used a ‘cloud catcher’ machine and pumped filters to capture water droplets and analyzed them for microplastics, sampling various wind directions and speeds including a storm and sea fog event.

They found plastic fragments as small as five micrometres and up to 140 micrometres-long fibres in the air suggesting that it is being ejected by the sea in bubbles. The sea fog generated by the surf produced the highest counts of 19 plastic particles per cubic meter of air.

The results show that microplastics in the ocean could be transferred to the air by the process of ‘bubble burst ejection’ and ‘wave action’, for example from strong wind or turbulent seas.

Previous studies have already shown that microplastics can be transported long distances in the atmosphere by wind, including work by the same researchers which found microplastic pollution in a remote region of the Pyrenees mountains. According to the plastic industries’ figures, around 359 million tons of plastic was manufactured globally in 2018 with some estimates suggesting that around 10% of all plastic produced is lost to the sea each year.

Steve Allen, a Strathclyde PhD candidate who co-led the study, said: “Sea breeze has traditionally been considered ‘clean air’ but this study shows surprising amounts of microplastic particles being carried by it. “It appears that some plastic particles could be leaving the sea and entering the atmosphere along with sea salt, bacteria, viruses and algae.

“Bubble ejection of particles is a well-known phenomenon but we have now shown that microplastic is also being ejected from the sea. To date, there has been no consideration of the oceans as an atmospheric microplastic source. We keep putting millions of tonnes of plastic into the ocean every year, this research shows that it is not going to stay there forever.” Co-research lead Dr. Deonie Allen of Strathclyde added: “Where the oceanic plastics being ‘lost’ is relatively unknown and this research adds a small but important piece to the puzzle. “We don’t know a lot about the effect on humans but a growing number of studies are showing there is a potential danger from inhalation of microplastic particles”.



Candice Batista

Candice Batista is an award winning Environmental Journalist and one of Canada’s leading eco advocates. Her career spans national and international media outlets, where she has used her background in environmental studies and media & communications to produce and report on various environmental and climate issues for primarily television and digital audiences including Huffington Post, The Globe & Mail, The Weather Network, CityTV, Rogers Television, The Pet Network, iChannel, and CTV, where she is currently the National Eco Expert for the stations number 1 daytime talk show, The Marilyn Denis Show.
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