The Problem with Plastic

Story: Kathryn Berry, PhD | Photos: Rick Miskiv

Plastic pollution is ubiquitous throughout the global marine environment and the severity of contamination increases each day. An estimated 5-13 million tons of plastic enters the ocean from land each year [1] and 5 trillion small plastic particles, weighing over 260,000 tons, are estimated to be floating in the world’s oceans [2]. When a piece of plastic becomes smaller than 5 mm in size it is classified as a “microplastic". Certain microplastics are purposely manufactured for use in personal care products such as exfoliating facial cleansers, while others form from the degradation of larger plastic pieces. Additionally, microfibres from clothing (especially fleece) are lost during washing, eventually entering freshwater and marine environments because they pass through washing machine and wastewater treatment filters.

Microplastics are a contaminant of emerging interest and international concern because they are being found in small and large concentrations throughout the world’s oceans and along beaches in both highly populated and remote regions [3]. Since microplastics are lightweight they are carried long distances from the input source via wind and ocean currents. Microplastics can be buoyant, neutrally buoyant, or sink depending on the plastic polymer type, degradation (from weathering) and biofouling. This means microplastics can contaminate the sea surface, water column and seafloor, posing a potential threat to organisms at various life history stages.

Microplastics are a growing concern because they can be mistakenly ingested by marine organisms, including plankton, which are at the base of the food chain [4]. Many aquatic organisms have been documented to ingest microplastics, including corals [5], sea cucumbers [6] and fish [7]. Scientists are working hard to determine the impacts associated with microplastic ingestion, however the effects could be both physical and/or chemical. For example, plastics can leach chemical constituents and adsorb contaminants from the surrounding seawater. If ingested, these contaminants can then potentially be transferred into animal tissue [8] and biomagnified through the food chain. An increased number of studies are reporting plastics in wild caught fish and supermarket seafood [9], suggesting ingestion is not only an environmental issue, but also a potential human health and food security issue.

My current research involves learning more about the quantities of microplastics in coral reef environments, including reefs in the Maldives, Australia and Myanmar. I also examine the stomachs of fish and oysters to determine if the animals inhabiting these reefs are snacking on plastic. On a recent trip to the Maldives with The Hydrous, water and sediment samples were collected from 8 coral reefs situated within numerous atolls across the country. Water samples were collected using plankton tows, a method that involves towing a specialized net (called a plankton net) with a very small aperture behind a boat for a set period of time. Seawater is filtered as it passes through the net, trapping plankton and microplastics, which are then collected for identification and quantification in the laboratory. Specialized techniques allow us to identify the different types of plastic we are finding, providing insights into the potential source of the plastic, e.g. clothing, paint, packaging, rope, etc. Research in remote countries such as the Maldives is very important because many remote regions lack proper waste management systems and large quantities of plastic are discarded into the sea each day. Maldivians rely on healthy coral reefs for many reasons including tourism, coastal protection and food.

Humans are the root cause of the plastic pollution problem, which means we can work towards solving this issue. Increased education and implementation of plastic pollution mitigation schemes is required, as well as Extended Producer Responsibility. Since its creation, plastic has been the ultimate single-use material, however we cannot sustain the current levels of plastic production and waste. Only a small percentage of plastic is recycled efficiently and in developing countries most plastic is burned, releasing toxic fumes. Legislative changes, such as banning microbeads in exfoliates are being discussed and implemented in some countries but the cessation of production is not happening fast enough. In 2003 Germany implemented a mandatory one-way deposit system that included non-alcoholic carbonated to alcoholic mixture drink bottles [10]. This successful system has resulted in the return of 98.5% of refillable bottles. Such initiatives are being carried out by other EU member states including Scandinavia. The return of recyclable packaging not only benefits the environment, but can save large amounts of money to municipalities by reducing waste management costs [10]. Such recycling incentives can be implemented everywhere and should be. Consumers must take initiative to reduce waste, recycle appropriately, and refuse unnecessary packaging and products that contain microplastics. If you see a piece of plastic on the ground, pick it up! If someone offers you a single-use plastic item, refuse it! Together we can work towards a collective reduction of plastic in our environment.


Dr Kathryn Berry is a marine biologist, whose research focuses on the impacts of pollution on marine organisms and ecosystems. Her current research projects include linking water quality with turtle health in the Great Barrier Reef, the impacts of coastal pollution on near shore coral reefs and baseline quantification of microplastic contamination. Winner of The Nature Conservancy Conservation Award, Kathryn is passionate about ocean education and science communication. She actively promotes powerful messages about ocean conservation and is frequently a guest speaker in high school science classrooms, inspiring young learners about plastic pollution mitigation and ocean stewardship. She is also a contributing scientist at The Hydrous.

[1] Jambeck, J.R., et al., Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science, 2015. 347(6223): p. 768-771.

[2] Eriksen, M., et al., Plastic pollution in the world's oceans: more than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons afloat at sea. PLOS ONE, 2014. 9(12): p. e111913.

[3] GESAMP, Sources, fate and effects of microplastics in the marine environment: a global assessment, P.J. Kershaw, Editor. 2015, IMO/FAO/UNESCO-IOC/UNIDO/WMO/IAEA/UN/UNEP/UNDP Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection: London, U.K. p. 96.

[4] Cole, M., et al., Microplastic ingestion by zooplankton Environmental Science and Technology, 2013. 47(12): p. 6646-6655.

[5] Hall, N.M., et al., Microplastic ingestion by scleractinian corals. Marine Biology, 2015. 162(3): p. 725-732.

[6] Graham, E.R., & Thompson, J.T. Deposit- and suspension-feeding sea cucumbers (Echinodermata) ingest plastic fragments. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 2009. 368(1): p. 22–29.

[7] Phillips, M.B., et al., Occurrence and amount of microplastic ingested by fishes in watersheds of the Gulf of Mexico, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2015. 100(1): p. 264-269.

[8] Wardrop, P., et al., Chemical pollutants sorbed to ingested microbeads from personal care products accumulate in fish. Environmental Science and Technology, 2016. 50 (7): p. 4037-4044.

[9] Weikle, B., Microplastics found in supermarket fish, shellfish. CBC News, Jan 28, 2017: http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/microplastics-fish-shellfish-1.3954947?cmp=rss

[10] Zero Waste Europe. Empowering our communities to redesign: https://www.zerowasteeurope.eu/tag/germany-deposit-refund-system/