Plastic pollution can be lethal to sea life.

Not only can it choke or poison fish and sea animals, but plastic fragments can also absorb toxic chemicals from the water around them, making them even more harmful.

Scientists from the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) and the University of Sheffield, however, have shown that when certain microbes colonise these pieces of plastic, they create a protective film around them, potentially shielding anything that might ingest them from the worst of the toxic effects.

The research showed that this ‘biofilm’ is made up only of certain types of microbes life – most showed no interest in the plastic.

They say that this suggests that these plastic-hungry microbes might eventually help break down the material they have colonised.

Plastic waste is a long-term problem as its breakdown in the environment can take thousands of years.

Over time, the size of plastic fragments in the sea decreases as a result of exposure to natural forces.

The research suggests that plastics aren’t quite as impervious to nature as previously believed.

Dr Mark Osborn, senior lecturer in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield, said: “300 million tonnes of plastic are produced globally each year with significant proportions reaching the marine environment. Our research is revealing the potential for marine microbes to colonise plastics and to potentially degrade these key environmental pollutants.”

PhD student Jesse Harrison said: “Plastics form a daily part of our lives and are treated as disposable by consumers. As such plastics comprise the most abundant and rapidly growing component of man-made litter entering the oceans.

“Microbes play a key role in the sustaining of all marine life and are the most likely of all organisms to break down toxic chemicals, or even the plastics themselves.

“This kind of research is also helping us unravel the global environmental impacts of plastic pollution.”

David Gibbs

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