A recent study by the University of Western Australia and CSIRO has found that Australia’s waters are chock full of tiny pieces of plastic rubbish, about 4,000 per square kilometer. Nearly all of these microscopic particles come from consumer items like disposable water bottles, packaging and fishing equipment.

Australia’s waters are not the worst in the world in terms of plastic pollution. The concentration is lower than in the Mediterranean Sea, for example, but low levels of recycling in Australia (20%) suggest that this problem will only get worse. The world’s most shocking example, however, is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a concentrated area of oceanic trash twice the size of Texas. The patch is formed by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a vortex of ocean currents that acts as a whirlpool, drawing rubbish into its center. If you still haven’t heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch perhaps you’ve had your head metaphorically buried in a pile of rubbish. Or maybe the media just isn’t doing its job.

Seal caught in garbage, Kure Atoll, Pacific. Pic: © Micheal Pitts via Nels Israelson, TEDx (Flickr CC)

So what’s the problem with a sea full of plastic? We drink and eat from plastic containers all the time without being significantly poisoned. The problem is that plastic breaks down into tiny beads, which absorb pollutants from the water. These beads look a lot like food to many sea creatures. That’s how they enter the food system – starting at the bottom and working their way up to humans.

According to research plastic particles outnumber zooplankton six to one in the central Pacific Ocean. Zooplankton are tiny animals that form a large portion of the bottom of the food chain for oceanic species, especially jellyfish, which mistake tiny plastic particles for food. Jellyfish are in turn eaten by turtles, marine birds and fish, including sharks, swordfish, tuna and salmon.

The Australian study’s lead author, Julia Reisser, is quoted in the Guardian:

We know that plastic is ingested by a broad range of organisms. What concerns me most is that these plastics are loaded with pollutants, such as fertilisers, because the plastic acts as a sponge for other things. This can be transferred via small fish to bigger fish and then us. It impacts the whole food chain. There has been research that shows toxins from plastics are causing tumours on the livers of some fish.

Plastic pollution in Australian waters. Pic: Mixy Lorenzo (Flickr CC)

The Pacific is becoming increasingly polluted by toxic chemicals. Switzerland’s Green Cross Institute recently released a top ten list of the world’s most polluted places. These include the Buriganga River in Bangladesh, Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo and the Citarum River Basin in West Java, Indonesia.

Whether a two-headed ray fetus recently found in Australia has anything to do with pollution is still as of yet unknown, though its mother was taken from a contaminated section of Port Phillip Bay. Two headed rays and sharks are an extremely rare phenomenon.