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.

The bits evoke worry for several reasons. They may block the feeding appendages or digestive tracts of small invertebrates. Also, chemicals incorporated into plastic products during their manufacture can threaten health when ingested—among them the endocrine disruptor bisphenol A. Moreover, plastic debris floating in the ocean acts as a magnet and sponge for toxic substances, such as DDT, dioxins and PCBs, absorbing concentrations 100 to a million times that of surrounding seawater. Life-forms eating pollutant-loaded microplastics may therefore be exposing themselves—and those who feed on them—to concentrated poisons. A solution, many scientists agree, is designing plastic products that can be recycled throughout much of their material life.