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Are we getting sick of burnt plastic?

Amsterdam, 11 October 2019 – The burning of plastic is a major health hazard worldwide, Susan Shaw argued during the Plastic Health Summit organized by the Plastic Soup Foundation on 3 October. Professor Shaw is the founder and director of the Shaw Institute and Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at New York State University. The Shaw Institute is one of the partners in the Plastic Health Coalition.

Carcinogenic

Furniture, mattresses, electronics, insulation material, it’s all made of plastic. Burning plastic releases toxic gases and substances, including carcinogens. Plastics are always chemically processed, for example with flame retardants. Fires are therefore much more toxic than in the past. Cancer is a dreaded occupational disease among firefighters. Carcinogenic substances are found in elevated concentrations in their blood after extinguishing. According to Shaw, at 63%, cancer is by far the leading cause of death in this profession. In 2014, Shaw was the lead author of a scientific publication on the probable link between cancer and firefighting.

Burning landfills

Plastic waste is burnt uncontrollably in many places in the open air. Garbage dumps can even burn or smolder permanently, after being burnt, intentionally or unintentionally. Combustion releases carcinogenic substances, including dioxins. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that exposure to such fires increases the risk of cancer by 19%.

Burning forests

Susan Shaw also pointed out that all over the world forests are going up in flames due to increasing droughts and illegal fires. These fires are on the increase and the smog they release is polluting the air and posing health risks. Last year, the largest forest fire in the history of the United States also destroyed the town of Paradise, where 85 people died. In the weeks that followed, eight million people were exposed to a toxic cloud of smoke hanging over California.

Photo: Ted Christian

The first evidence of health risks from micro and nano plastics

Amsterdam, 8 October 2019 – During the Plastic Health Summit on 3 October, scientists presented the first research results on the effects of plastic particles on human health. They also expressed their views on how the precautionary principle relates to their findings. Some say that more research is needed first, others say that there are enough early warnings and that we cannot wait to take action until all the risks have been examined in detail.

© Twycer / www.twycer.nl

ZonMw

The presented preliminary research results show that immune cells attack microplastics, and that they end up dying, that the growth of the airways is hindered by nylon fibers and that microplastics probably penetrate the placenta. These are the results of laboratory tests in which high concentrations are used. The studies expose previously unobserved mechanisms, without being able to determine the extent to which these mechanisms currently occur in our bodies. Earlier this year, the Dutch financer of health research ZonMw made 1.6 million euro available for fifteen short-term studies. The most pressing, but never previously investigated, questions were aimed to be answered by these studies.

© Twycer / www.twycer.nl

Explanations

At the end of the Plastic Health Summit, ZonMw stated that the importance of the studies was so great that 1 million euros of extra research money were made available. The scientists were served at their beck and call. In a read-out joint statement, they argue for more (follow-up) research to better understand the consequences of microplastics on our health.

© Twycer / www.twycer.nl

Measures already needed

Some ZonMw researchers kept a low profile as to whether their investigation was a reason to take action. Fransien van Dijk (University of Groningen) advises citizens to ventilate their well-insulated homes often and also to vacuum more often so that we inhale less plastic fibers in our homes. Heather Leslie (Vrije Universiteit) characterized the research results as early warnings, alarm bells, which now justify social intervention in the light of increasing plastic production. After all, the concentration of microplastics in the environment and therefore likely in our bodies is increasing exponentially. The longer we wait, the more difficult it becomes to turn the tide.

Maria Westerbos, director of the Plastic Soup Foundation: ‘Perhaps the most important result of the Plastic Health Summit, is that nobody can any longer deny the potential danger of microplastics to our health’.

 

Read also – ‘New evidence points to microplastics’ toxic impact on the human body’ , an article in Geographical Magazine

Read also – ‘Microplastics harm human health, warn experts‘, an article in Food Manufacture

See here the broadcast of Radar of 7 October with Maria Westerbos.

Pyroplastics: a new type of plastic pollution

Amsterdam, 11 September 2019 – Pyroplastics are floating plastic pebbles. They are found on, among others, the coast in the southwest of England and are barely distinguishable from real pebbles. Only when you pick them up, you notice that they are much lighter. Having spent years in the water, they gave them their round shape and stone grey color. This phenomenon is a new chapter of plastic soup. Read the scientific article on the discovery in Science of The Total Environment.

Plastiglomerate

Everywhere in the world waste plastic is burned to clean it up. If that happens in the open air and near the sea, the remainders can end up in the water. In 2014, a new type of stone was first described: plastiglomerate. The name is a combination of plastic and conglomerate, the geological indication for sedimentary rock. Melting plastic mixes with other materials, such as coral, lava stone or shells, and forms a kind of rock which until recently did not exist. Pyroplastics are also remnants of melted plastic, only not mixed with other material. This is the case, for example, when plastic is burned on ships and thrown overboard.

Erosion

Unlike plastiglomerate, pieces of which are found on beaches, pyroplastics have been eroded by floating in the sea for many years. Research indicates that they consist of polyethylene, polypropylene or a combination thereof. Further analysis also indicates the presence of heavy metals that have long been banned. This implies that these pieces of pyroplastic have been present for a long time. Their shapes were similar to real stones shows that similar erosion processes take place. The process, however, is infinitely faster for plastic than for natural stone.

Unlike the usual plastic waste found on beaches, unfortunately, the pebbles are barely recognized. As a result, we underestimate the amount of washed-up plastic, said environmental researcher Andrew Turner at the University of Plymouth.

Photo: Rob Arnold

Also read – Interview with researcher Andrew Turner in National Geographic

Also read – Plastiglomeraat in Museon

Manufacturers evade deposits by making plastic cans and aluminum bottles

Amsterdam, 30 August 2019 – It is almost certain that at the beginning of 2021 a deposit will be introduced on small plastic bottles, but not on other beverage packaging. The objective of significantly reducing the number of litter plastic bottles in the environment can only be achieved by a deposit scheme. Soda manufacturers also know this. They are introducing packaging alternatives to avoid deposits: aluminum bottles and plastic cans.

Government decision Last June the Government’s decision on deposits was published. Ninety percent of the plastic bottles sold must be collected separately. If the manufacturers do not succeed, a deposit on small bottles will be introduced in 2021. According to the government, a deposit may result in a 70-90% reduction of small plastic bottles in our litter. Beverage cans, however, are excluded.

Fears of opposition and the environmental movement

The opposition in the Dutch parliament insisted on also placing cans under the deposit scheme. According to a recent count, aluminum cans have a 63 percent share in all the beverage packaging litter in the environment. Other types of beverage packaging are also left outside the scheme. When deposits are introduced according to the new decision, the deposit will be levied on only 19% of all beverage packaging found in the litter. The scheme is therefore ineffective in advance. But if a deposit is levied on plastic bottles and not on cans, manufacturers will put many more beverages in cans. In that case, a shift will occur and even more aluminum cans will be found in the litter than is already the case.

NVRD’s concerns

Not only the environmental movement fears this development. Also, the NVRD (Royal Association Waste and Cleaning Management) which unites Dutch municipalities, has expressed its concerns about this: ‘There is a considerable risk that in the coming years that many plastic bottles will be replaced by cans for which there is no collection obligation nor deposit scheme’. In its message, the NVRD also refers to the environmental movement that struck alarm ‘that cans contain not only metal, but also a plastic coating, which causes the litter of cans to spread plastic in the environment as well.’

Packaging alternatives

Beverage giants like Coca-Cola are under increasing pressure because of their contribution to the plastic soup and are looking for ways to reduce the use of plastic. One of these is the replacement of plastic by aluminum. Therefore, Coca-Cola offers, from September onwards, Dasani (spring water) in aluminum bottles in part of the United States. PepsiCo has announced to offer Aquafina (also spring water) in restaurants and stadiums in cans in the future. This trend has also been initiated in the Netherlands. Aluminum bottles made by Heineken and Coca-Cola have already been found as litter. Plastic beverage packaging is now also sold in the form of cans. These are plastic containers in the form of tin and with an aluminum lid including tab. Albert Heijn sells Drinklicious Strawberry Watermelon in plastic tins.

Missed opportunity

The NVRD calls it a missed opportunity that the possibility has not been created to introduce a deposit on cans into the legislation and now calls for ‘careful monitoring of the extent to which this

shift occurs and the consequences it has for litter.’ The NVRD expects the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management to intervene ‘if necessary’. But these concerns are not shared by State Secretary Van Veldhoven (D66). She refuses to commit. Quoted in Trouw: ‘The first measurements do not yet show a shift from plastic to cans.’

Maria Westerbos, Director of the Plastic Soup Foundation: ‘ Because the decision on the deposit scheme only concerns plastic bottles and no other beverage packaging such as tins, the government has opened the way for manufacturers who want to avoid deposits by using packaging alternatives. These are the types of packaging that we will soon find in the litter’.

 


Also read – Coca-Cola largest plastic polluter

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Better recycling of synthetic mattresses is half-baked solution

Amsterdam, 21 August 2019 – In the Netherlands, 1.2 million mattresses per year are placed at the side of the road as large household waste. Two thirds of these, a few hundred million kilos, are burned. Nearly all those mattresses consist of synthetic materials. If by mid-2019 no meaningful steps have been taken by the sector to reduce this mountain of waste, the government will take legal measures in the form of a mandatory manufacturer responsibility. The majority of the sector opt for recycling. This, however, is a half-baked solution. The real solution is the plastic-free mattress. 

Recycling initiatives

Presently, about 15% of the mattresses are now disassembled and processed, the rest are burned. The mattress industry has the objective to increase the percentage of processed mattresses. Various recycling initiatives have already come into being. Auping and DSM-Niaga have developed a circular mattress. Elements of that mattress are easy to separate and can then be used in new mattresses. In collaboration with waste processor Renewi, IKEA has been investing in the recycling of mattresses. RetourMatras recycles mattresses and reuses more than 90% of the materials. Mattress Recycling Europe collects discarded mattresses in municipalities. These are first placed on collecting carts and are then brought to a processing line.

Harmful substances

Synthetic mattresses contain harmful substances that cannot be removed during the recycling process. Substances such as flame retardants and softening agents are held responsible for a range of diseases. For this reason, the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2018 pointed to the health risks of the circular economy. In the national plan for endocrine disruptors in a circular economy presented last year, the Dutch foundation Wemos pleaded for a clean circular economy. The urgent advice is to avoid harmful substances at the design stage. For synthetic mattresses, however, this solution is an illusion. For instance, flame retardants are added intentionally, as plastics are particularly flammable.

Implementation programme

The government wants the use of raw materials to be halved in 2030 to eventually realise a waste-free economy. One of the ‘icon projects’ in the framework of the Implementation Programme Circular Economy entails improved reuse and design of mattresses. This project focuses on the recycling of discarded mattresses (95% in 2025) and a more durable design, so that in 2025 75% of new mattresses are easier to disassemble to reuse the materials. But circular mattress design should take into account the harmful substances. And the project is silent on precisely that issue.

The true circular mattress has already been in existence for a long time

The cabinet strives to burn significantly fewer mattresses, to recycle a much larger proportion of discarded mattresses, and to more mattresses being designed circularly. However, circular design is not defined. It mainly indicates modular design, so that a discarded mattress can easily be disassembled for usable parts. However, the icon project does not mention the truly circular mattress at all. That mattress simply exists already, is plastic-free and therefore free from harmful substances. This circular mattress consists exclusively of perfectly recyclable organic materials.

Baby mattresses

Especially the demand for organic baby mattresses has increased in recent years. Babies and small children are extra vulnerable to the harmful substances in synthetic mattresses. They sleep a lot and lie with their face directly on the mattress. The artisan company Lavital produces mattresses for adults that consist entirely of natural raw materials, and now also makes mattresses for cots.

Lavital has become a business angel of the Plastic Soup Foundation (PSF). The company donates part of the proceeds of sold children’s mattresses to the PSF (fill in code ‘ PSF ‘ when ordering the baby mattress).

Maria Westerbos, Director of the Plastic Soup Foundation: ‘It is very important that companies like Lavital show that you do not have to sleep on plastic with harmful additives. Paricularly babies deserve to make a good start. We are super proud that Lavital has become one of our business angels. ‘


Also read – Plasticers in plastic slow down baby’s language development

A minus point for PLUS supermarket

Amsterdam, 15 August 2019 – The PLUS supermarket chain sells lightweight plastic cutlery and plastic plates saying that these are sustainable because they can be used one hundred times. The Plastic Soup Foundation had previously qualified this as absurd. In a Distrifood press release, PLUS is sticking to its position. ‘These utensils can be used many times, even 100 times, and are considerably stronger than the previous versions. They can be washed in the dishwasher and be used in the microwave.’ Citing these reasons, PLUS is skirting around European legislation.

Dishwashable utensils

In November 2018, PLUS had announced its intentions in a press release: ‘By including dishwashable crockery and cutlery in its range, PLUS, the Meest Verantwoorde Supermarkt (most responsible supermarket) leads the way in European policy that will soon ban disposable plastics. The European ban will help tackle the plastic soup in the seas and oceans. PLUS is replacing the plastic disposable items with items that are less detrimental to the environment … Adding dishwashable utensils in the PLUS range is a new step towards less disposable plastic.’ And ‘PLUS will make next year’s BBQ season more sustainable by offering dishwashable and reusable crockery and cutlery. These products do not need to be thrown away anymore … They can be reused for more than one hundred times.’

Misleading

You can see from a mile away that this plastic crockery and cutlery will mostly be sold for single use. The crockery and cutlery have hardly changed in appearance, design, and price. The claim that they are ‘dishwashable’ changes little or nothing in terms of customers deciding whether or not to buy them, let alone encouraging them not to throw them away after one use.

Washing is not reusing

The European Guidelines on reducing the impact of certain plastic products on the environment bans disposable cutlery in 2021. This is not up for negotiation. PLUS is skirting around the ban by calling disposable cutlery dishwashable and therefore reusable. However, for the European Commission, the number of times that a product can be used or washed is not the standard. It maintains a completely different definition of reuse. Its intention in terms of reuse refers to return systems in which the product goes back to the manufacturer or retailer after use, for example by imposing a deposit return system.

A minus point for PLUS that should, of course, know this.


Also read – PLUS SUPERMARKET WORKS AROUND THE EUROPEAN BAN ON SINGLE-USE PLASTICS

ING finances the plastic soup with billions of dollars

Amsterdam, July 19, 2019 – The ING is the largest Dutch financer of shale gas and plastic producers. The bank has invested at least 3.9 billion dollars since 2010. That’s one of the conclusions of a recent report Plastic Finance from “De Eerlijke Geldwijzer” (the Dutch Fair Finance Guide), in which The Plastic Soup Foundation participated. On their website, the ING explains on the one hand (in Dutch) why they invest in shale gas (in the US, not in Europe) while they strive to contribute to a reduction in plastic waste on the other hand. The bank states: “We believe that all parties in the chain need to be responsible for re-thinking how we produce and use plastic at the moment”. ING’s billions of investments in shale gas shows that the bank have not taken their own message on board.

ING’s Blind Spot

The ING does not invest in shale gas projects in Europe, only in the United States. Ethane is a by-product of the extraction of shale gas, and is used for the production of new plastic. The Guardian predicts that this cheap raw material will lead worldwide to a 40% increase in the production of plastic in the next 10 years: plastic that will be used to produce tens of millions of pieces of new plastic packaging, some of which will inevitably end up in the environment. But there’s lots of money to be earnt for oil and chemical companies. For that reason, some 204 billion dollars has been invested in the US since 2010 in the expansion of plastic production based on ethane. And not only in the US: there’s an abundance of shale gas and some of it is transported to Europe in very large ethane carriers. The company responsible for this trans-Atlantic transport, the British chemical giant INEOS, is also investing 3 billion Euro’s in plastic plants in Antwerp.

New Plastics Economy

The ING has in the meantime endorsed the New Plastic Economy Commitment of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The document advocates a circular economy for plastic: it should never become waste, but should instead always be re-used as a raw material. This development conflicts with investments in shale gas. Thanks to shale gas, new (virgin) plastic can be produced that is so cheap and of such a good quality, that there will no longer be a market for recycled plastic. With investments in shale gas, the ING thwarts the realization of the same circular plastic economy that they confess to support so strongly.

Lack of policy regarding the plastic soup

A serious policy to combat the plastic soup seems to be totally lacking at the ING. When requested by the Dutch national news sender NOS for a reaction (in Dutch) to the report Plastic Finance, the bank commented that it is a conscious decision to invest in companies that are involved in the extraction of gas: “The ING will no longer finance coal-fired power stations. Gas generation plays an important role in the energy transition as it will, for example, enable the United States to close down coal-fired power stations”. The reaction from the bank disregards the relation between shale gas and plastic production, as well as the relation between the production of plastic and the emission of greenhouse gasses. A recent report calculated that the production and incineration of plastic around the world is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 189 coal-fired power stations of 500 megawatt each!

A serious policy with regard to plastics also needs to take in to account the loss of plastic production pellets (nurdles). These leak into the environment in their millions. The factories for the production of these nurdles are often located on rivers. They were found to have polluted half of the locations that were used as measuring points for the Clean Rivers project: in the Westerschelde there were even more than 800 pellets in one meter of seawall.

The Fair Bank- and Insurance Guide and the Plastic Soup Foundation urge all banks and insurers to provide clarity about their investment policy and exclude shale gas production from investment. Policies with unambiguous criteria are needed, criteria that will put the brakes on the unbridled growth in the production of plastic by companies that banks like ING are helping to finance.


Also read: Banks and insurance companies in the Netherlands invest billions in shale gas and plastic production

Also read: Does the Rutte cabinet really want less plastic?

Also read: INEOS invests 3 billion euros in plastic plants in Antwerp

Banks and insurance companies in the Netherlands invest billions in shale gas and plastic production

Amsterdam, 16 July 2019 – Most major banks and insurers in the Netherlands invest heavily in companies that extract shale gas and produce plastics. ING is the largest financier of shale gas and plastics. Aegon and Allianz are the largest investors. Between 2010 and this year, the banks a total of 5.3 billion dollars to the gas and plastic companies examined. Banks and insurers invest 4 billion dollars in these companies.

This was established by the new practical research of the Fair Banking and Insurance Guide in collaboration with the Plastic Soup Foundation. Click here to read the report Plastic Finance; How Dutch financial institutions enable shale gas to fuel the plastic soup disaster. The report establishes the first direct relationship between investments in shale gas and plastic production and the increase in plastic soup on rivers, seas and oceans.

Fracking for Plastic

Due to cheap shale gas, production or (packaging) plastic has been increasing considerably. Since 2010, no less than 204 billion dollars has been invested in the United States in the expansion of plastic production based on ethane, a component or shale gas. Ethane is also transported to Europe with mammoth tankers. New plastic plants are being built in Antwerp to crack this ethane. Ethane is cheaper than the petroleum derivative naphta, traditionally used as raw material used for production of plastic. Ethane is used to make ethylene, a basis for all types of plastics such as PET and polyethylene.

Shale gas extraction is also a growing industry in Argentina. But plastic production is just one of many reasons why shale gas does not fit into a sustainable investment strategy. During loading, transport and handling of virgin plastic, many nurdles (the industrial base pellet) and up in the environment. These small plastic pellets are used as a semi-finished product in the production of virtually all plastic products.

Image Text: Does your bank pollute the world with plastic?

Investments by Dutch banks and insurance companies

The seven largest Dutch banks and the nine largest insurance groups in the Netherlands were investigated by the Fair Banking and Insurance Guide. Insurers Aegon and Allianz were found to be the largest investors in shale gas and plastics. On the reference date (18-20 February of this year), the stock portfolios of the joint Dutch banks and insurance companies in this sector had a total value of almost 4 billion dollars.

When it comes to loans, ING is largest by far, followed by ABN Amro. These figures are found in public sources on the financing of the ten selected shale gas and plastic companies. The total investments in shale gas and plastic companies are probably much higher.

Shale gas and plastic: a blind spot

The adverse effects of shale gas extraction on the environment and climate are well-known and are an increasing topic of conversation among investors. The direct relationship between shale gas and the production of plastic and, consequently, the leakage of plastic disposable products into the plastic soup in seas is underexposed and unknown to many market parties.

As a result of their investments in companies such as Shell, Exxon Mobil, DowDuPont and Chevron, banks and insurers play a role in the rapid growth of plastic production. All banks and insurers say they embrace the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals also include protection of the climate and the oceans. Investments in shale gas companies and companies that produce plastics are directly opposed to achieving the SDGs.

Bank’s claim to worry about the plastic soup, but often have no policy regarding investment in plastic production. Rabo, NIBC, Volksbank (including ASN) and Triodos exclude, in whole or in part, investment companies that realize their turnover from the extraction of shale gas. ING’s policy allows shale gas extraction outside Europe only. No clear policy was found among the other banks and insurers. When it comes to investments in plastic and / or plastic producing companies, only Triodos and Volksbank have restrictive policy. The Fair Bank Guide, Fair Insurance Guide and Plastic Soup Foundation encourage all banks and insurers to clarify their investment policy and place shale gas on the exclusion list of investments.

The Fair Money Guide

The Fair Money Guide examines whether banks and insurance companies do not invest your money in things like animal abuse, arms trafficking or child labor. On their website anyone can check the scores or banks and insurers on these and other topics. The Fair Money Guide, which consists of the Fair Bank Guide and the Fair Insurance Guide, is a collaboration of Amnesty International, FNV, Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands), Oxfam Novib, PAX and World Animal Protection. Plastic Soup Foundation supports the objective of the Fair Money Guide on the plastic issue. Send the banks and insurers a complaint or tweet via the website honestegeldwijzer.nl

Also read – Press release Fair money guide

Also read – Does the Rutte Cabinet really want less plastic?

Also read – Ineos invests 3 billion euros in plastic plants in Antwerp

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Plastic in your body: emphasis on size rather than weight

Amsterdam, 13 June 2019 – It is well known that we drink, eat and breathe plastic particles. But how many are there and how harmful it is for our health? This week the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) published a study and comes up with new information. The main conclusion in the publication No plastic in nature: assessing plastic ingestion from nature to people is that we may ingest 5 grams of plastic per week, as much as the weight of a credit card. The researchers base their conclusions on existing studies and rightly express many reservations.

 New WWF campaign

The report, which calls on Governments to take drastic action to fight the plastic soup and also advocates that much more research needs to be done, is accompanied by a new campaign launched by the WWF. The campaign has the shocking weekly amount of 5 grams of plastic that a person ingests as its theme. This is compared to daily objects such as a pen, a credit card or a dice, to get the message across how much plastic you ingest. Although this campaign will reach a wide audience, some nuance is called for.

Emphasis on weight says little

The research was carried out by the University of Newcastle in Australia. For their calculation researchers estimated the weight of the plastic particles. They take as their starting point an estimated weekly ingestion of 2000 plastic particles, a total weight of 5 grams. We are assumed to ingest about 90% through drinking water, through tap water and in particular through bottles of water. A study that was published last year (and to which the researchers also refer), found microplastics in 93% of the 259 bottles of mineral water that were studied, an average of 325 particles per litre. However, the vast majority— 315 particles — are ultra-small particles. So small that their weight cannot be determined.  Earlier this week, also a Canadian study on Human Consumption or Microplastics was published. According to this research the annual ingestion is 50,000 particles. These too are ultra-small particles that weigh virtually nothing.

Emphasis should be on size

Precisely those ultra-small particles, called nanoplastics, are most relevant for human health. More accurately: the particles that are almost insignificant in weight, are probably the most harmful. These can penetrate cell membranes and make their way into the organs. Larger particles, of which the weight can be determined, are usually defecated. It must be noted that there are still no standard methods to assess the risks of micro- and nanoplastics in the body.

Plastic Health Coalition

To find out how dangerous micro- and nanoplastics really are, the Plastic Soup Foundation has initiated a partnership in which scientists and environmental organisations work together: The Plastic Health Coalition. Earlier this year, ZonMW, The Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development, started fifteen studies into the effects of micro-and nanoplastics in this framework. On 3 October 2019, during the Plastic Health Summit, the first results are to be presented.


Also read:

ZonMw starts pioneering research into the health risks associated with plastic

Camera in Wageningen captures coral eating plastic

Amsterdam, 12 June 2019 – Filmed for the first time: coral eating microplastics. And they even seem to enjoy it. A marine biologist from Wageningen University and Research (WUR) has the disturbing primeur.

Coral normally feeds on plankton. In 2015, researchers discovered that stony corals are unable to distinguish between plankton and microplastics when filtering water. Analysis at the time showed that 21% of the corals investigated contained at least one microplastic. Many animals mistake plastic for food, but coral does not have eyes. Other researchers therefore made the assumption in 2017 that corals eat plastic because they like the taste. The phenomenon has now been filmed.

Tasty additives?

Coral turns out to have a preference for clean plastic above plastic that is covered by a layer of bacteria. The plastic, itself, seems to be a treat for the plankton. It seems likely that this is the result of the chemical additives in plastic. The corals ate all of the different kinds of plastic that were tested, but showed no interest in sand. The coral can’t properly process the plastic that is swallowed. It is also clear that, as a result of the growing plastic pollution, corals more regularly come into contact with plastic.

Filmed: coral eating plastic

Tim Wijgerde, a marine biologist from Wageningen University, has been studying coral for years, specifically recovery and conservation of coral riffs. He has successfully filmed coral consuming various pieces of plastic. Wijgerde: “Although we already knew that corals can eat plastic, there were no clear recordings of this behaviour until now. So I set up a high-resolution camera above coral polyps in our coral lab in Wageningen, and fed the coral with pieces of plastic of about 2 millimetres. Within an hour it was evident that our coral also found the plastic very tasty. The next step will be to investigate how harmful microplastic is for the continued existence of coral.”

Watch Tim’s film, A Reef by Night and Day. The film runs for 12 minutes: The fragment alluded to above starts after 10 minutes and 40 seconds.


Also read: Plastic is making coral reefs sick