The what? Well here’s how Dr Linda Amaral-Zettler and colleagues of the Marine Biological Laboratory in the USA describe it:
“The Plastisphere represents a little world of life that exists on the surface of plastic particles. This environment comes complete with predators and prey, organisms that photosynthesise to produce energy from light, (similar to plants on land), and even parasites and potentially disease-causing organisms harmful to invertebrates, fish and humans.”
According to a separate piece of research published back in 2010, despite increases in plastic use, the amount of plastic particles floating about in the North Atlantic didn’t appear to change between 1986 and 2008. So what’s going on?
The guys at the Marine Biological Laboratory have revealed that marine microbes are quite happily gobbling a lot of it up. So much so that a whole ecosystem – the ‘plastisphere’ exists. This doesn’t mean we can breathe a sigh of relief and carry on disposing of plastics like it has no effect. Tiny plastic pieces can get gobbled up by tiny critters that make up the basis of the food chain. These are then gobbled up by larger critters, who are gobbled up by larger critters, who are…well you get the idea. So the plastic passes up the food chain. It also accumulates in ever-increasing amounts the higher up the food chain you go. And don’t forget some of the compounds that make up those bits of plastic can be toxic, become toxic as the breakdown process moves along too.
The authors have written up a really nice piece in ‘The Conversation’ outlining their work.
Unfortunately you will need access (or pay) to the journal Environmental Science and Technology if you want to read the original paper yourself.
Image: Marine microplastics taken from Chesapeake Bay watershed. Credit Chesapeake Bay Program/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)