The impact of microplastics on marine life

Microplastic debris floating in the world’s oceans could be having a massive impact on marine life.

Tiny bits of plastic rubbish are having an impact on lugworms, and other marine animals, which are an important source of food for other animals.

Work by Stephanie Wright a postgraduate researcher from Biosciences found that if ocean sediments are heavily contaminated with microplastics, marine lugworms eat less and their energy levels suffer. A separate report, from Plymouth University, shows that ingesting microplastic can also reduce the health of lugworms by delivering harmful chemicals, including hydrocarbons, antimicrobials and flame retardants to them.

Tamara Galloway, Professor of Ecotoxicology, believes the study has highlighted the need to reduce the amount of plastic waste and therefore microplastics entering our seas.

She said: "Plastics are enormously beneficial materials. However, if marine plastic pollution continues to increase, impacts such as those demonstrated in our laboratory studies could occur in the natural environment. It is therefore important that we prevent the accumulation of plastic and microplastic debris in marine habitats through better waste-handling practices and smarter choices in the materials we use.”

A team of Exeter researchers headed by Prof Galloway have previously joined forces with environmental charity The Rozalia Project to find out how widespread microplastics are and what impact they are having.

Microplastic debris is made up of tiny plastic beads, granules, fibres and fragments less than 5mm in diameter. Ingesting the tiny particles can prevent animals, including lugworms, from consuming their natural prey, leading to starvation and even death. These creatures also face the threat that this debris may be toxic.

The University of Exeter microplastics team met up with the Rozalia Project team, in the rural town of Rockland, Maine, USA before heading 40 miles offshore to Hurricane Island.

Over the next course of two weeks the Microplastics and Rozalia teams travelled south to Boothbay Harbour, Portland, Kittery and Boston and were struck by the beautiful surroundings and wide variety of wildlife including minkie whales, dolphins, storm petrels and ospreys.

But the study also highlighted how widespread the dangerous debris, much of it non-degradable, had become.

In order to collect water samples that would trap the microplastics the used very fine-mesh Neuston nets and sediment grabs.

After the samples were collected, they were sent back to Exeter where the team are currently analysing them for presence of microplastics.

They aim to publish their methods and novel results next year and they hope the results will lead to a change in policy and legislation surrounding microplastics as well as informing further research and highlighting the high quality work done by the University of Exeter and the Rozalia Project.

The team have also developed their research to be used as an educational outreach resource for educational charity Digital Explorer. The idea is to produce some resources based on their research to fit into the ‘bioaccumulation’ section of the science national curriculum.

This video shows the team at work:

The Rozalia Project is an environmental charity, based in the United States, which focuses on removing marine debris from the New England seaboard; to date they have collected nearly 15,000 pieces of litter from the marine environment.

In addition to the work undertaken by the staff and undergraduate interns at sea, the project also run educational outreach programs and engages with the 20,000 schoolchildren across America who make up their virtual crew.