We all know that microplastics are becoming a huge problem in the world's oceans, but a recent study on some of the smallest and deepest-living creatures in the sea really brings to light the fact that nowhere on earth is safe from ocean plastic pollution. Even in the deepest oceanic trenches, amphipods (small zooplankton) are consuming these tiny plastic particles at an alarming rate.
The amphipods in this study were collected from 2008 to 2017 in six of the deepest oceanic trenches in the world including the Peru-Chile Trench, the Izu-Bonin Trench, New Hebrides Trench, Kermadec Trench, and the deepest of them all, the Mariana Trench.
Scientists studied what is called the hindgut portion of the animal, which is an area deep inside the digestive tract just to make sure they were observing plastic that had made its way through the animal and didn't come from some external source of contamination. It turns out that 72% of the total animals studied had at least one piece of microplastic in their body, but in the deepest trench, the Mariana, 100% of the amphipods had microplastics in them! So the deeper you go, the more plastic there seems to be.
The distribution of microplastics across the ocean basin and the fact they were found inside animals in every trench studied just goes to show that our actions are having far-reaching effects on the creatures that live in the ocean. The amphipods feed on the microplastic fibers in what may be a case of mistaken identity; the phytoplankton these animals normally feed on are of about the same size and shape as these microplastics (< 5mm in size).
While it is unclear whether the ingestion of this type of plastic is harming these creatures, we do know that this is certainly a way for microplastics to enter the food chain. It also turns out that these fibers are, in many instances, very similar to the ones that come from our washing machines after we do a load of laundry with clothing made with synthetic fibers like polyester, rayon, acrylic, or spandex. So, it just goes to show how interconnected everything on this planet is. Washing your clothes may now be feeding microplastics to animals that live in the deepest parts of the ocean. Let that sink in.
Stories like this are in some ways shocking, but they are also a wake-up call to all of us that we need to be mindful of how our actions affect the ocean plastic pollution problem—even when engaging in the most seemingly harmless and ordinary tasks. Being mindful of all our actions and how they relate to the ocean environment is something we should collectively strive for.