One-third of fish off the southwest coast of England have been found to be contaminated with plastic, according to a new study in Marine Pollution Bulletin. The source of the plastic — sanitary products like exfoliators and face scrubs and single-use bags — is more than enough to make one wary of eating fish, or at least one of the ten species that scientists from Plymouth University analyzed.
“We have previously shown that on shorelines worldwide and on the sea bed and in the water column around the UK, these tiny fragments of plastic are widespread,” as scientist Richard Thompson says in Planet Earth Online. The study shows how these plastic fragments are making their way into organisms.
504 fish include whiting, horse mackerel, John Dory and red gurnard were collected about 10 kilometers (just over 6 miles) off the coast of Plymouth, at a depth of some 55 meters (about 60 yards). 184 of the fish had between one to fifteen pieces of plastic in their gastrointestinal tracts. All told, 351 pieces of plastic were removed from the fish, most of it from rayon (a synthetic fiber made from liquified wood pulp used in clothing) and from sanitary and cosmetic products.
The rest was from plastic bottles and single-use bags. After some years of declining use, shoppers in the U.K. have been (alas) using more and more of the latter. In 2011, U.K. supermarkets handed out an increasing number of single-use plastic bags — a total of 8 billion “thin-gauge” bags – for the second year in a row, a 5.4 percent increase from the 7.6 billion handed out in 2010. Every U.K. shopper now uses about eleven plastic bags a month and more than a bit of it is ending up inside fish.
Plastic “microbeads” are very bad news for fish. They can block up their digestive systems and give them a false sensation of fullness. In addition, chemicals pollutants from the water latch onto the plastic bits that the fish absorb and pass these on and up the food chain.
Thompson emphasizes that plastic materials are actually “inherently very recyclable” and reusable. While they have been, in his words, “at the heart of our throw-away culture for the last few decades,” they don’t have to be. In a positive sign, Unilever has said that it will be removing plastic microbeads from all of its personal care products by 2015.
In 2010, only a minuscule 8 percent of the 31 million tons of plastic waste generated in the U.S. was recycled; pictures of plastic bags floating in the ocean have become a symbol of how we humans are making a mess of every corner of the earth. The bad press about plastic seems to be helping to change this but we can still keep up the pressure on manufacturers by calling on them to use alternatives to plastic microbeads including crushed apricot kernel or almond shells and grains, jojoba, salt, sugar and sand). Otherwise, too many fish will be laced with the unwanted flavor of plastic.
Photo from Thinkstock