You already knew that plastic pollution in the oceans was disgusting, but you probably didn't realize it was this disgusting.
A new study by researchers from England's University of Exeter and Plymouth Marine Laboratory concludes that microplastics – those tiny pieces smaller than a millimeter in size, which are particularly hazardous to marine life -– are altering the sinking rates and other properties of zooplankton feces.
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What happens is that the tiny marine creatures are consuming the plastic and excreting it. But the amount of polystyrene in the fecal pellets is making them lighter than normal, causing them to sink more slowly to the sea floor.
So why is that a big deal? Zooplankton feces, as it turns out, actually perform an important function in the marine environment, by transporting carbon and nutrients into deeper waters. That not only provides nourishment for animals who live in the ocean, but it also helps the oceans to store carbon, an important thing for controlling climate change.
Now, however, with the pellets sinking more slowly, there's a greater opportunity for them to be ingested by marine animals. That transfers the plastic to their stomachs, where it can cause all sorts of harm.
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"As these fecal pellets sink, they take the plastic with them." the study's leader, Exeter scientist Matthew Cole, explained in a press release. "This could be an important route by which floating plastic litter is removed from the sea surface down to the ocean depths."
Zooplankton themselves are consuming plastic at an alarming rate, according to a 2015 study by Canadian scientists. That's also worrisome in its own right, because as the bottom of the aquatic food chain, they're eaten as food by many larger animals, and they pass along plastic in that fashion as well.
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A vast range of marine organisms, including fish, turtles, seabirds, and invertebrates are known to consume plastic debris.
Other researchers have estimated there are over five trillion bits of microplastics floating in the ocean, and microplastics have been found in the intestinal tracts in a quarter of fish and a third of shellfish sold at markets in the United States.