What Goes Around Comes Around: How Plastics are Integrated into the Food Chain

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Photo Credit: Fabi Fliervoet/Flickr

By Taylor Schaefer, Staff Writer and Editor for Save the Water™ | October 14, 2015

The Plastic Problem

A 2014 study conducted by Gyres Institute estimated that 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing in around 269,000 tons are currently dispersed throughout the surface our oceans. 4 This absurd amount of plastics is the origin of many senseless dilemmas involving the world’s oceans. Macro and microplastics are literally suffocating marine life and oceans as they infiltrate our food chain and contaminate waterways.

Plastic production has been on the rise for 50 more years, thriving at an explosive rate from 1.9 tons in the 1950’s to 330 million tons in 2013.5 The extent to which plastics are being manufactured can be attributed to the low cost, efficiency, and durability presented by most plastic properties. Polyethylene and polypropylene are examples of plastics with properties that have a high resistance to biological degradation. It is estimated that 60 to 80 percent of all marine litter is made up of these kinds of plastics.3

Even though the International Maritime Organization has banned the disposal of plastic waste in marine environments, plastics often find their way into ocean currents by both land and sea. 4 Land-based debris from industrial waste sites and urban areas are often washed away by sewage or stormwater systems, transported by rivers, or left by beach visitors; this is the main source of plastic waste entering marine environments. Ocean-based debris is mostly material that has been accidentally or intentionally thrown overboard from vessels, including fishing equipment.6

How Types of Plastic Affect the Ocean

When plastics reach the ocean, they gradually break down into smaller and smaller pieces due to exposure to UV light, oxidation, and physical interaction with animals and oceanic movements. However, microplastics are not only created from the breakdown of larger plastic waste; for example, “microbeads” found in personal care products such as kinds of toothpaste and skin cleansers are often small enough to escape water treatment facilities and pass into waterways. The exposure of both large and small plastic debris has been clearly documented in marine organisms at allotropic levels, from plankton to large mammals.4 Once these plastics are consumed, tests have shown that chemicals can leach out and be reabsorbed into the guts and tissues of marine organisms. 2 Koty Shard, a microbiology professor at Ekerd claims, “Microplastics can change what type of bacteria are in sea water.” This means that microplastics are capable of altering the most fundamental elements of the food chain.

Most commonly known as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and dioxins (DDTs) are all common organic chemicals that fuse with plastic debris in the ocean. POPs are widespread in both land and water environments. Some of these are highly toxic and have a wide range of negative health effects, including endocrine disruption.3 They also have high mutagenicity and carcinogenicity properties. Furthermore, POPs are not easily degraded in the environment, so they accumulate in the food chain. 3 Thousands of similar chemicals may exist in our oceans; however, researchers are limited to screening only for compounds they can identify, so there might be even more highly toxic but undetectable compounds contaminating our water.1

Future Implications

Anne-Marie Cook, one of two EPA lead scientist investigating possible health risks posed by marine plastics noted, “There are a lot of repercussions to a community in finding out that their food supply is potentially contaminated.”. 4 It is clear more research must be conducted in order to determine what happens when plastic particles enter organisms and human beings in particular.

Furthermore, experts such as Heather Leslie, an ecotoxicologist of VU University Amsterdam, are concerned about the impact of toxins from microplastics.4 Leslie claims, “plastic particles can induce immunotoxicological responses, alter gene expression, and cause cell death.”

More studies must be conducted in order to gain a better understanding of the movement and distribution of plastic throughout the oceans. New laws should promote a more responsible handling of plastics including production, recycling, and proper disposal. The manufacturing of plastics would be a good place to start; creating sustainable plastics that are more biodegradable would reduce accumulation in the oceans as well as reduce the number of leaching chemicals in the long term.

Solutions to Plastic Problem

Further research is the key to confronting issues plastics create for oceans, bays and rivers. Understanding which plastics and POPs have the most impact on marine life, water quality, and human consumption is a necessary step in determining an appropriate manufacturing process. It will also lead to the development of new technologies for processing waste and creating alternative materials for packaging. Research conducted by Save the Water on POPs and other potentially harmful properties will give the public greater insight into the toxicity of these compounds. Increased public knowledge generated by the research and educational material provided by Save The Water will also put pressure on manufacturers to monitor the chemicals used in production materials and hopefully reduce harmful plastic waste in the future.


  1. EPA. “Persistent Organic Pollutants: A Global Issue, A Global Response.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 9 Dec. 2016, Retrieved from www2.epa.gov/international-cooperation/persistent-organic-pollutants-global-issue-global-response.
  2. Pittman, Craig, et al. “’Microplastics’ Imperil Marine Life in Tampa Bay, Worldwide.” Tampa Bay Times, Tampa Bay Times, 14 June 2014, Retrieved from www.tampabay.com/news/environment/water/microplastics-imperil-marine-life-in-tampa-bay/2184411.
  3. Rios, Lorena M, et al. “Persistent Organic Pollutants Carried by Synthetic Polymers in the Ocean Environment.” Persistent Organic Pollutants Carried by Synthetic Polymers in the Ocean Environment – ScienceDirect, Science Direct, Aug. 2007, Retrieved from www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025326X07001324.
  4. Seltenrich, Nate. “New Link in the Food Chain? Marine Plastic Pollution and Seafood Safety.” Environmental Health Perspectives, NLM-Export, Feb. 2015, Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4314237/.
  5. Seltenrich, Nate. “New Link in the Food Chain? Marine Plastic Pollution and Seafood Safety.”Environmental Health Perspectives, NLM-Export, June. 2016, Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4314237/pdf/ehp.123-A34.pdf.
  6. Vegter, A C,et al. “Global Research Priorities to Mitigate Plastic Pollution Impacts on Marine Wildlife.” The Sea Doc Society, Endangered Species Research, 17 Oct. 2014, Retrieved from www.seadocsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/Vegter-et-al2014-plastic-marine-wildlife.pdf.
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