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Our Clothes Are Poisoning Deep-Sea Animals With Microplastics

This might be a problem we can actually fix.

In June, Canada listed those tiny plastic "microbeads" that are found in exfoliants and cleansers as a toxic substance, following in the footsteps of the US and Europe. Plenty of people celebrated the move: these tiny beads, which are five millimeters or smaller in size, are terrible for the environment. Once we wash them down the drain, they gum up ecosystems, and have been found in the Great Lakes and up and down the coast. Fish and other marine creatures eat them. They basically never go away. But plastic microfibers in our clothes might be an even bigger problem, and they're shed every time we do the laundry.


Scientists just found the first evidence that even deep-ocean creatures are consuming these plastics. Our garbage can now basically be found everywhere on the planet.

Plastic microfibre inside a sea pen polyp. Image: Michelle Taylor

In the new study, published in Scientific Reports, scientists found plastic microfibers inside hermit crabs, squat lobsters and sea cucumbers at depths of between 300 meters and 1,800 meters, collected from sites in both the mid-Atlantic and southwest Indian Ocean. That's almost as far as you can get from human civilization, and the plastic was there.

Read More: Counting All the Plastic in the Ocean Is Really Hard

"It's quite terrifying," said lead author Michelle Taylor, who's based at Oxford University's Department of Zoology. "We were a few thousand miles from land, almost 1,000 meters down, and not only were the microfibres there, but animals were eating them."

Out on the ocean, scientists deployed an ROV that collected sediment samples and deep-sea creatures, which were preserved on the boat and then dissected onshore.

The Isis remotely operated vehicle. Image: Michelle Taylor

"[Plastics] are everywhere," Taylor said. "If you run your hand over your desk, they're probably on your hand," so the team had to be extraordinarily careful to avoid contamination. "We really went to town," she said. The work on-shore was done in a sealed room, and the door was covered with a cotton muslin cloth to keep as many microfibers out as they could. Researchers only wore natural fibre clothing, and used metal and glass equipment (no plastic). The room itself was cleaned and monitored constantly for plastic.


The most microfibres they found inside any one creature was five, in a hermit crab. "We didn't find evidence of bioaccumulation," the buildup that can occur inside a living organism over time, she said. But, given the evidence that bioaccumulation is happening in shallow-water environments, which are better studied, "maybe this is where it's going."

Microplastic fibre on a hermit crab claw. Image: Michelle Taylor

It's hard to say how much the plastic is harming these creatures. Microfibers make good sponges for other dangerous stuff, "nasty chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyl [PCBs] and pesticides," she said. When birds eat these microplastics, they'll starve to death, she said, because the fibers leave them feeling full when their guts are just full of garbage.

If these three deep-sea creatures are ingesting them, the paper notes, other species in the deep ocean probably are, too.

There are ways for us to begin to deal with this. Taylor calls it an "engineering challenge"—finding a way to filter microplastics out of the water, maybe by fitting a new sort of filter on a washing machine. That could be important, as well as reducing plastic usage, including through "bag bans" that make people pay a few cents for one at the grocery store. (Unfortunately, as Toronto's case shows, introducing these bans isn't always so straightforward. The city briefly introduced a ban, and then later reversed it.)

Sea cucumber. Image: Michelle Taylor

Microplastics that are already out circulating in wild environments, including in the deep ocean, won't be so easy to clean up. They're probably there to stay.

There plenty of garbage in the deep sea already: When scientists do ROV surveys there, they'll "often find rubbish and plastic waste and wine bottles and things," Taylor said. Even so, "the deep sea is the last great unknown. To think that humans are having this effect down there is disturbing."

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