Plastic pollution in the ocean. New research suggests organisms can quickly break down a plastic bag into millions of tiny fragments. Photo by Rich Carey/Shutterstock
Dec. 8 (UPI) -- The ocean's miniature inhabitants can shred a small plastic bag -- the type used to hold groceries -- into 1.75 million microscopic fragments, according to a news study.
When scientists from University of Plymouth in England fed a plastic bag to Orchestia gammarellus, a tiny species of amphipod abundant in the coastal waters of Northern Europe, they were surprised at the rate at which the trash was consumed and broken down.
But while the amphipods broke down the plastic bag with tremendous speed and efficiency, they didn't exactly remove the trash from the environment. They simply turned one piece of plastic pollution into a lot of tiny pieces of plastic pollution -- 1.75 million microscopic fragments, to be exact.
The findings -- detailed this week in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin -- suggests marine organisms may be working to proliferate plastic pollution in the ocean.
Researchers initiated their study to better understand how the presence of a biofilm, a layer of organic material on the ocean surface, impacts the rate at which organisms break down plastic trash.
The results showed organisms break down plastic pollution faster when a biofilm is present. Scientists arrived at their conclusion after analyzing evidence of processed plastic in the lab and along the coast. Whether the plastic bag was conventional, degradable or biodegradable had no impact on the rate of ingestion.
"An estimated 120 million tons of single-use plastic items -- such as carrier bags -- are produced each year and they are one of the main sources of plastic pollution," Richard Thompson,a professor of marine biology and head of Plymouth's International Marine Litter Research Unit, said in a news release. "They already represent a potential hazard to marine life, but this research shows species might also be contributing to the spread of such debris."
Previous studies have shown that some animals, like seagulls, regularly mistake plastic debris for food. Surveys have found as many as 700 different marine species regularly encounter and ingest plastic pollution.
"[The study] further demonstrates that marine litter is not only an aesthetic problem but has the potential to cause more serious and persistent environmental damage," Thompson said.