Science and Journalism in Society

Brandeis University JOUR 130B

Plastic Pollution in the Ocean Could Reduce Its Ability to Store Carbon

Earlier this month, Environmental Science and Technology published a study examining the effects that plastic pollutants may have on the biological systems of the ocean, and ultimately found that plastic pollution may slow down carbon storage. One of the ways that microscopic pieces of plastic are processed through the ocean is through zooplankton digestion. The zooplankton ingest microplastics, and excrete them within their faecal pellets. This process then allows the microplastics to sink with the faecal pellets and move away from the surface of the ocean and enter the marine food chain. This study is the first to examine the impact of microplastics on the zooplankton feces and the other marine life that depends on them.

 

The researchers found that the feces with microplastics in them are sinking much slower than uncontaminated feces, causing the movement of microplastics away from the surface of the ocean to slow down. Futhermore, the downward movement of these pellets is a significant part of the biological pump, moving carbon, nutrients and particulate organic matter into deeper waters. This process provides food for bottom dwellers, and stores carbon in the depths of the ocean. Due to the slowing of this process because of microplastic pollution, the pellets are more prone to consumption, fragmentation, or degradation along the way, therefore fewer pellets are reaching their destination, and ultimately, less carbon is being stored in the depths of the ocean.

 

Ultimately, much more research needs to be conducted to fully understand the complex processes that impact the ocean’s ability to store carbon, but if our plastic pollution is harming the way that our earth can combat our air pollution, we may be in bigger trouble than we thought.

 

 

Sources:

Cole, Matthew et. al. “Microplastics Alter the Properties and Sinking Rates of Zooplankton Faecal Pellets”. Environmental Science and Technology. February 11, 2016.

http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/acs.est.5b05905

 

1 Comment

  1. gross. but good story. any concrete numbers on the quantity of plastic pollution out there? would be nice to provide a little more context. also, effects on fauna/flora?

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