According to study a group of British scientists, plastic debris dumped in the ocean over decades is breaking into microscopic particles that are cropping up everywhere from beaches to deep ocean sediment.
This phenomenon has consequences that are just beginning to unfold, the scientists warned.
Widespread littering has led to a steady accumulation of plastic fragments at sea, according to Richard Thompson, a professor at the University of Plymouth.
"It's a cause for concern rather than alarm," Thompson said in a telephone interview yesterday. "There's lots and lots of microscopic bits of plastic. It appears quite ubiquitous. It's likely to be a global problem," he said.
The researchers collected sediment from beaches and from estuarine and subtidal sediments around Plymouth, England. They then examined an additional 17 beaches and looked at plankton samples collected regularly since the 1960s off British shores, reports washingtonpost.com
According to nationalgeographic.com beaches worldwide bear witness to the ugly impact of plastic debris on our oceans. Milk jugs, water bottles, cigarette lighters, diaper liners, jar lids, cheap toys, and goodness knows what else festoon tide lines today. But this may just scratch the surface.
A new study suggests that microscopic bits of plastic have sifted, unseen, throughout the marine environment. The plastic not only litters the beach, it is—like fine bits of sand—becoming the beach.
U.K. researchers in Plymouth and Southampton, England, found that microscopic fragments of nylon, polyester, and seven other types of plastic are widespread in sediments around British shores.
Richard Thompson and colleagues at the University of Plymouth report that microscopic fragments of plastic had been ingested by barnacles - which filter water for food - and in lugworms that burrow in mud, and tiny crustaceans that feed on detritus. In plankton samples they found evidence of polymer fibres as small as 30 millionths of a metre.
Plastics wash up on beaches to be repeatedly broken by the pounding waves. The team searched for nylon, polyester, acrylic and six other kinds of polymer with a clear chemical "signature". But they believe they have underestimated the spread of human debris.
They could not identify plastics produced more than 20 years ago, and they could not pick up evidence of particles smaller than 20 microns. But they have clear evidence that long after plastic bags, nylon ropes and Tupperware boxes have vanished, their constituent fragments remain. Nobody knows whether this material can get into the food chain: that is the next line of research, guardian.co.uk