Plastic has transformed packaging, improved transportation efficiency, and may be the key to cheaper solar cells, but it also disrupts ecosystems. A recent study has found that tiny plastic fragments dispersed in the ocean have increased around 100-fold in the past 40 years and are providing new places for an insect species to lay its eggs.
Researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California studied an area in the North Pacific dubbed the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. While its name comes from its large concentration of plastic debris, this patch is not an island of plastic. Contrary to popular belief, it is not visible from space. It is made up of fragments so tiny that most of the plastic cannot even be seen from a boat.
Nonetheless, even these fragments no larger than a grain of rice pose an environmental threat. They’ve been shown to be toxic for fish and birds and nourish some microbes. Now, the Scripps study has reported insects laying their eggs on them. The insect, Halobates sericeus, is a water skater that lives on the ocean surface. It usually lays its eggs on rare bits of floating driftwood or seashells, but plastic fragments provide plentiful new real estate for this purpose. As lead author Miriam Goldstein explained in a blog post, “… adding all that plastic is providing habitat that would not naturally exist out there.”
Where there is more plastic, there are more eggs, boosting Halobates numbers. The insect eats plankton and is eaten by birds, so it is hard to guess what this boost means for the whole food chain. What is clear though is that our love for plastic is causing unexpected effects for the ecosystem. We are bound to continue discovering these unanticipated ways that plastic is changing our world.
This study was published in Biology Letters and is freely available here
Photo Credit: Anthony Smith
Posted on Monday, 21st May, 2012