SUFB 112: Plastic Pollution Giving Rides to Microbes to Get Closer To You

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Plastic pollution represents a significant threat to marine ecosystems across the globe. Recent estimates pin the number of plastics in our ocean at over 5 trillion, many of which are small, transparent fragments that cannot be easily detected or removed. The plastics can be dangerous or event fatal to marine wildlife, which often mistake these items for food.

Today’s episode focuses on another potential detrimental impact of plastics in our ocean, specifically its propensity to attract and transport microbes. An article out of details how floating pieces of plastic can provide just the right kind of habitat microbial communities need to survive and flourish. In an otherwise harsh ocean environment, plastic fragments are oases of sorts to tiny, microscopic organisms that play an important, yet underappreciated, role in ecosystems throughout the world. Not only do floating plastics provide a hard substrate for microbes to attach to, they also typically attract nutrients that microbes feed on. Imagine you’re stranded at sea, and all of a sudden you see an inner tube floating by loaded with steaks and sweet potato fries. You’ll hang on to the inner tube for dear life, no matter where it brings you.

Well, microbes are hanging onto all of the plastic we’ve dumped into our oceans. And because the plastic passively drifts with the currents, so do these microbial communities. Plastic pollution is actually acting as a vector to transport potentially non-native or invasive microbes to new regions of the globe. This could pose potential health risks for local ecosystems or communities, since not all microbes are beneficial or neutral to humans. Marine animals are also at risk here, because as they consume plastic they also consume the associated microbes. And because plastic doesn’t get digested, this pollution just ends up making its way into the poop of marine organisms. This is the same poop that, upon sinking to the bottom of the ocean, stores a lot of carbon that would otherwise be released into the ocean. However, plastic may break up this fecal matter, preventing it from reaching the bottom and releasing its carbon into the surrounding environment. Yes, plastic could even ruin poop.

Luckily, there are ways to address this widespread, global problem. First off, a better understanding of these microbial communities will help scientists better understand which ones pose threats to humans and wildlife and how to contain these threats. Since taxpayers fund most research these days, get in touch with your local official and convey to them how important it is to allocate your contributions towards microbial research. On a more personal level, you can cut down on how much plastic you use in your daily life. While beach clean ups are great ways to reduce the amount of litter in our coastal environments, really preventing plastic pollution begins at the source. If consumers stop purchasing or using plastic products when other, environmentally-friendlier options exist, companies will stop producing and putting into circulation so much plastic. This is the best way to prevent the problem of plastic pollution from getting worse.

Enjoy the Podcast!

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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Tullio says:

    Hi mate, very interesting episode! I was wondering if you could provide a link to the paper about plastic and fecal pellets. I would be interesting in reading it. Thanks!

  • Nathan Johnson says:

    Thanks Tullio! Unfortunately after about an hour of searching I couldn’t find any peer-reviewed research suggesting that plastic could break up marine fecal pellets, thereby altering carbon sequestration in the ocean. I’ve reached out to the author of the ScienceNews article (where the claim was made) and will let you know what he says! It may just be a theory at this point (mentioned at, since small plastics could be more buoyant and less dense than fecal pellets. I’ve modified the post to clarify this, thanks for inquiring!

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