British Shoreline Clogged with Microscopic Plastic Litter

Plastic-based litter from human beings is inundating the world’s oceans and polluting shorelines down to the microscopic level, according to British scientists who recently completed a multi-year study on the problem in and around Great Britain.

Richard Thompson and colleagues at the University of Plymouth report in the journal Science that they looked at apparently clean sand and mud on British beaches, in intertidal estuaries and even under 30 feet of water for evidence of invisible pollution.

“We found microscopic fragments almost from the first sample. Since then we have looked at more than 20 sites around Great Britain, and this material has been present at all of them, from Land’s End to the north of Scotland,” he said. “We are finding just as much in remote parts as we are nearer the big centers.”

They found that microscopic fragments of plastic had been ingested by barnacles—which filter water for food—as well as by lugworms, crustaceans and plankton.

Plastics wash up on beaches and are repeatedly broken by the pounding waves. The team searched for nylon, polyester, acrylic and six other kinds of polymer with a clear chemical “signature.” But they believe they have underestimated the spread of human debris.