The food chain is an ordered series of organisms, each dependent on the previous as a source of food. In other words, herbivores eat plants to survive and carnivores eat herbivores and other carnivores. In the water, small fish eat plankton, and are then eaten by slightly larger fish, finally eaten by larger fish and then potentially ending up on your dinner plate.
This process has fed the planet from the beginning of time and isn’t changing anytime soon. However, what’s finally ending up on your plate is far different than it was just 70 years ago. As the Earth’s human population has grown and expanded, so have the innovations brought to market by manufacturers and large agrichemical businesses.
Unfortunately, a large portion of those innovations were developed without considering how they would impact the environment and ultimately human life. Permutations and modifications to manufacturing and agribusiness occurs at speeds far greater than safety testing can accommodate.
One consequence of material product transformation was the development of plastics, believed to be nearly indestructible. However, it wasn’t long after the invention of the first synthetic polymer in the early 1900s that we discovered just how false this belief is.
Expedition to Record Volume of Plastic and Its Impact on the Food Chain
Following multiple research studies, environmental assays and the work of activists across the world who discovered our bodies are slowly becoming contaminated with plastic, a group of scientists set out to determine exactly how large the problem of plastics has become in the world’s oceans.
The research voyage, named the “eXXpedition” in reference to an all-female 14 person crew of scientists, writers and activists, is intent on determining how plastics in the ocean are impacting marine life and the rest of the planet.
The crew mans a 72-foot vessel named the Sea Dragon that launched from Hawaii and traversed part of the Pacific North Pacific gyre known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The samples the crew collect will help scientists understand how plastics may pick up other pollutants and transfer them through the food chain.
Founder of the eXXpedition, ocean activist and sailor, Emily Penn, talks about how overwhelming sailing into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was, now two times the state of Texas:1
“When we sailed into the southern edge of the Gyre, we started to see a piece of plastic over the side of the boat every 10 seconds — a cigarette lighter, a bottle, some sort of container.
Then when you wake up the next morning, and it’s still going, and wake up seven days later, and it’s still going, and you’re 800 miles from the nearest human being — it’s that relentlessness that’s just so overwhelming.”
During the voyage, the crew collects samples of plastic from the air, water and the ocean floor to be analyzed in several labs across the world. Samples collected off the coast of Hawaii were photographed by National Geographic Explorer David Liittschwager.2 He commented on what was collected and photographed, saying, “To me, it's a little shocking how much is in relatively small samples.”
He spread the content on trays to photograph the contents up close, revealing images so dense it is sometimes difficult to discern what was plastic and what was living. While moved by these images of plastic obscuring nature for the past two decades, Liittschwager describes his mission as simply to document what's real and present today, saying, “I'd like people to see what's really there.”
Liittschwager has a history of being curious about nature. Almost 10 years ago he set about to find how many creatures would pass through a 12-inch square area in different environments on land and water, and across different temperature regions.
In total, he and a team of biologists recorded more than 1,000 individual organisms in this small area, speaking to the diversity of each environment.3 This diversity is in danger as he records the early death of albatross chicks after ingesting plastics, plankton and small fish intertwined with microplastics. A team even found plastics labeled from Japan off a remote coast of Canada.
Airborne Plastic Fibers in Marine Environments From Washing Clothes
In one sample from the trip, the team counted more than 500 pieces of microplastic. This extrapolates to half a million pieces in 1 square kilometer (a little over a half-mile) of open sea. However, this is not the total number, as the team did not account for nanoparticles showing up at the lab under a microscope. The Sea Dragon is also packed with samples of ocean air to be analyzed at King's College London.
The crew found airborne microfibers, which may pose a risk to the human respiratory system, are the result of washing clothes, allowing microfiber to enter the ocean through the sewage system. Sarah Dudas, biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, states, “Out of all the plastic particles we found, most of them are textile based”4 — tiny filaments of fabric from clothing made from nylon and polyester.
Much of this pollution is being driven by “fast fashion,” or cheap clothing, which some estimate is the fifth most polluting industry in the world. Although sales of clothing are at an all-time high, utilization has dramatically diminished. This essentially means that while sales have doubled from 50 billion to 100 billion units, the average number of times a garment is worn has significantly dropped.
Unfortunately, the cost of clothing and manufacturing has resulted in treating clothes as a single-use disposable item, creating a rapidly-growing waste problem. Chief among those issues is the use of microfibers that shed in your washing machine.
In one study5 commissioned by apparel maker Patagonia, data revealed a synthetic jacket may release up to 2.7 grams of microfiber with each washing. On average a garment released 1.7 grams, while older jackets released twice as much.6
Wastewater treatment plants are able to filter out just a portion of this debris and the rest inevitably sneaks through, ending up in waterways and eventually the ocean.
The irregular shapes of microfiber pollution make it harder for marine life to excrete than other types of microplastics, contributing to physical blockage in their intestinal tract and chemical poisoning, as the longer the particles stay inside, the more chemicals accumulate in the body.
This may also have ramifications for humans who eat the fish. Researchers have found nearly 25 percent of fish and 33 percent of shellfish purchased at fish markets in California and Indonesia had microfibers in their gut.7