What we didn’t know was how much the fish liked it.
“They all had access to zooplankton and yet they decided to just eat plastic,” Dr. Oona Lonnstedt, who led a recently published study on how microplastics affect young fish, told the BBC this week.
Lonnstedt, of Sweden’s Uppsala University, led a team that studied the freshwater fish known as perch. They found that when the fish were born into environments with a high concentration of polystyrene particles (a type of synthetic polymer), they actively chose to eat the particles instead of real food.
This, obviously, is a problem, because plastic is not exactly a nutritional powerhouse.
"They are basically fooled into thinking it's a high-energy resource that they need to eat a lot of,” Lonnstedt told the BBC. “I think of it as unhealthy fast food for teenagers, and they are just stuffing themselves.”
When compared with perch born into clean water, the perch that consumed a ton of plastic were developmentally stunted and were eaten by predators four times as quickly as their clean-water-born brethren.
The plastic-eating perch appeared to ignore the smell of predators, which is what usually triggers perch to engage in “anti predator behaviors,” Lonnstedt said in a news release.
Researchers fear that if consuming too much plastic leads to higher predator vulnerability in young fish, that could mean too many fish will end up dying before they get old enough to reproduce. And when populations at the bottom of the food chain get depleted, it can throw off an entire ecosystem.
Of course, that’s not the only reason microplastics are a disaster for aquatic life. The tiny particles are like sponges for pollutants in the water, becoming more and more poisonous as they work their way up the food chain, sometimes eventually to humans. And they could also be causing coral to starve to death by clogging up the digestive systems of coral polyps.
President Barack Obama has signed a bill aimed at banning the much-maligned microbeads from rinse-off cosmetics by 2017, but we still have a huge micro-plastic problem on our hands -- literally, in some cases. For one thing, the legislation does nothing to ban microbeads in products like detergents and cosmetics that are left on the skin.
On top of that, a lot of the microplastic in our water has nothing to do with microbeads.
The majority of microplastics in the environment come from larger pieces of plastic -- like plastic bags -- breaking down in the environment, microplastic researcher Sherri Mason told TakePart in February.
“I think the big movement is in finding plastics that can come from renewable resources,” Mason said, explaining that we need to work toward materials that are “truly biodegradable.”