Plastic fibre a 'major pollutant'
By Tim Hirsch
Published May 6, 2004
Tiny pieces of plastic and man-made fibres are causing
contamination of the world's oceans and beaches, the journal
Science has reported.
Even remote and apparently pristine layers of sand and
mud are now composed partly of this microscopic rubbish,
broken down from discarded waste.
This is the first assessment of plastic fragments accumulating
in sediments and in the water column itself.
It is not yet known what the long term effects of this
pollution may be.
A team led by scientists at the universities of Plymouth
and Southampton took samples from 17 beaches and estuaries
around the UK, and analysed particles which did not appear
to be natural.
The researchers found that most samples included evidence
of a range of plastics or polymers including nylon, polyester
Dr Richard Thompson, University of Plymouth
They also found that when creatures such as lugworms and
barnacles fed on the sediments, the plastics turned up
inside their bodies within a few days.
To test whether this contamination was getting worse,
the scientists analysed plankton samples taken from survey
ships between Scotland and Iceland since the 1960s - and
found that the plastic content had increased significantly
Because the team only sampled particles which looked
different from natural sediments, it is believed that
the true level of plastic contamination could be much
The lead author of the study, Dr Richard Thompson, said:
"Given the durability of plastics and the disposable
nature of many plastic items, this type of contamination
is likely to increase.
"Our team is now working to identify the possible
environmental consequences of this new form of contamination."
One concern is that toxic chemicals could attach themselves
to the particles which would then help to spread them
up the food chain.
That research is for the future, but this study suggests
that practically everything really is made of plastic
these days - even the oceans.
"We've found this microscopic plastic material at
all of the sites we've examined," Dr Thompson said.
"Interestingly, the abundance is reasonably consistent.
So, it suggests to us that the problem is really quite