See Inside August 2010

Plastic Surf: The Unhealthful Afterlife of Toys and Packaging

Small remnants of toys, bottles and packaging persist in the ocean, harming marine life and possibly even us

State of California

By now even schoolchildren know that the plastics we discard every year in the millions of tons persist in the environment for hundreds of years. And we have all heard of the horrors caused by such debris in the sea: fur seals entangled by nylon nets, sea otters choking on polyethylene six-pack rings, and plastic bags or toys stuck in the guts of sea turtles. This photograph, showing plastic fragments collected in just an hour at a cove near Gloucester, Mass., hints at a lesser-known but equally disturbing story: much smaller bits of plastic that are accumulating in oceans all over the world can potentially harm marine life and possibly even human health.

Although plastic does not get digested by microbes, as food and paper are, it does slowly “photodegrade”: ultraviolet light and heat from the sun increase its brittleness, causing it to weaken, crack and break up into smaller and smaller fragments. Indeed, a handful of sand or cup of seawater from nearly anywhere in the world will probably be peppered with microplastics—pieces that are tinier than a small pea and often invisible. Scientists fear the possible effects of this plastic confetti on zooplankton and other creatures at the base of the marine food web, which get consumed by larger organisms—turtles, fish, birds—and, ultimately, by us.

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