Plastic seen through the eyes of a biologist

Plastic seen through the eyes of a biologist

september 20, 2019

The plastic-forever-fantastic tale

By Jeanette Hedeager, Cand. Scient. in biology

Nature itself is the worlds best inventor and engineer. It came up with great things such as trees, water, iron, rock, glass -the list is never ending.

We humans strive to be engineers as well, and we therefore tend to take advantage of natures creations as part of our own inventions.

However, there is one invention that nature didn’t think of – maybe because it’s still smarter than us humans; it never invented plastic! But we did, and we use it in everything. And what a great pain it has become!

You probably heard it all before, but it has never hurt anyone to hear it a second (or 20th) time – on the contrary. Homo sapiens sapien – humans – are just one out of a billion species that lives on this beautiful planet that provides us with life. We are without doubt intelligent, but it seems, we are still not intelligent enough for our own good.

In recent years, plastic has gained a lot of attention, and it is estimated that the ocean will contain more plastic than fish by year 2050!
More than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into our oceans every year, causing all sorts of trouble: polluting the water, killing ocean life, and eventually ending up on our table in the form of fish, shellfish, and even salt.

It’s every kind of plastic we find in our oceans: balloons, bottles and caps, bags, fishing nets, rubber bands, shoes, straws, six-pack rings etc. And it’s everywhere – above and under the surface. It’s easy to spot in the oceans as the waste floats around, piles up in the bays, in the ships stern wave or come together and forms entire islands. 

Vain Dane Athletic newsletter Jeanette Hedeager animals

Photo: Jeanette Hedeager 2019

Plastic fantastic

We love to use plastic in our everyday life, and the demand for production is only increasing.
However, as useful as it can be, the problems with plastic are superseding! The millions of tons of produced plastic are short-lived and hard to recycle; once it’s produced its very hard to get rid of and can last forever in its environment.
Why? Because plastic does not decompose. It’s often non-biodegradable. 

An overwhelming amount of plastic pollution isn’t visible to the human eye, but still occurs out at sea, and on a microscopic level.
In many countries the recycling system is, if not non-existing, then poor, and the locals often have no proper way of getting rid of plastic – unless it is just to throw it away. Then it’s someone else’s problem.
Wind and weather will make sure it moves - from fields into the lakes, and out into the sea.
The estimations say, that 25 million tons plastic waste gets accumulated in the environment annually!

Some countries have another solution for the plastic build-up; burning it in fire-holes.
These you can recognize from far away on the black smoke-column that rises, and this adds in a whole bunch of other problems for our planet. Toxins in the air, blocking out sunlight which ruins produce and farming, and warming up the planet just to mention a few.

Some Asian countries are feeling it worsen every year, with the pollution hitting disastrous levels in the cities; at the end of March this year Thailand was urged to declare emergency in the city Chiang Mai and most of the northern provinces, and residents were advised to stay inside in the air-condition and avoid outdoor activities. Who would want to live in that?


Plastic islands – the new vacation destination

But hey, so what? A few cities may not be vacation material anymore. No problem. We can just go to one of those paradise islands with all the clear blue water. Think again. Of course the plastic has found its way here too, and when you go to the beach, you can collect just as much trash as you can shells. You’ll lay on a bed of garbage instead of sand, when you try to get your tan on. 

Vain Dane Athletic newsletter plastic Jeanette Hedeager

Photo: Jeanette Hedeager 2019


Plastic waste is blown from the shores out into the sea, the cruises ships and tankers dump their waste on small islands with no renovation system to handle all the rubbish left behind and trash islands or ‘Gyres’, are accumulating around the world. The ‘Great Pacific Gyre’ is estimated to cover a surface area the size of the state of Texas with a depth of 10 meters.

With the rate of plastic entering the oceans, you’ll soon be able to visit a plastic island in the Arctic’s as well. Recently, a plastic bag was even discovered on the floor of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean!


Animal death caused by plastic waste is rising

Plastic has another big sin attached to its reputation; it’s killing the animals.
Daily we see pictures of animals on land and in sea, that have died from tons of plastic in their stomachs or by getting tangled up and strangled by plastic. Plastic affects at least 700 marine species and is estimated to kill 100 million marine mammals each year. Right now, it’s believed that there are more than 51 trillion pieces of plastic in the oceans.

Wild animals do not have the ability to discern plastic from "digestible" materials, so if it looks like food, or smells like food, or tastes like food or behaves like food, then it must be food – and then they eat it.
Since no animals are able to consume and digest this material, it takes the toll on the ingesting or suffocates them, leading to the death of the animals; if it didn’t strangle them in the first place.

Vain Dane Athletic newsletter Jeanette Hedeager cow

Photo: Jeanette Hedeager 2019


Some of the animals that are hid the hardest are turtles, sealions, seabirds, fish, whales, and dolphins, but also cows, pigs, deer’s, elephants and a lot of other land animals suffers. 

  • Turtles mistake plastic and balloons as their normal prey – jellyfish.
  • A whale’s mouth is so large that it unknowingly picks up plastic debris. The first whale with plastic in its stomach was found in 1989, and since then reports are coming in often.
    A pregnant sperm whale washed up with 20kg of plastic in its stomach. During autopsy, they found squid in the stomach, but the plastic waste made her unable to absorb the nutrient, thus making her starve.
  • Millions of seabirds die of plastic pollution, as they also ingest all kinds of plastic debris including cigarette lighters. As an example; the Albatross will hunt by diving into the ocean to catch fish, squid or other food, and as they use their beak to skim the surface, they pick up plastic along the way. This can cause an obstruction in the digestive tract and can puncture internal organs and tear the stomach lining.
  • Grazing and scavenging animals, such as cows, pigs, dogs and camels, regularly eat plastic that has been contaminated with human food
  • Plastic microbeads resemble fish eggs and are eaten by jellyfish, egg-eating fish and filter feeders.
  • Red, pink and brown pieces of plastic debris are mistaken for shrimp.

"Plastic can kill more than once; if plastic is swallowed by an animal, it just sits around in the body, waiting for the victim to die and then decompose, so it can be released back. Carcasses decay, but plastic lasts and can choke, trap and kill - again."

Others get tangled up in plastic packing bands or old discarded fishing nets.
Stuck and unable to get out, they either suffocate, because they can’t go to the surface to breathe or die from starvation. Some sharks need to move to get oxygen over the gills, just like whales, seals and pinnipeds die if they get snared by the nets and can’t reach the surface to breathe or get severely infected. 

Vain Dane athletic news letter Jeanette Hedeager monkey

Photo: Jeanette Hedeager 2019

The plastic eating animals

All animals can eat plastic – but few will thrive on it. Of course there is no rule without exceptions!
In the hope of finding new tools for bioremediation of the plastic contamination, scientists are researching various organisms (worms, fungi, bacteria etc.) in the hope of finding species that can degrade and consume different kinds of plastic – as an ecofriendly strategy.
Scientists have recently discovered a fungus by the name of Aspergillus tubingensis in a Pakistan rubbish dump, that is able to break down waste plastics in a matter of weeks, that would otherwise persist in the environment for years!
The fungus is typically found in soil, but a study found that it can also thrive on the surface of plastics. It secretes enzymes which break down the bonds between individual molecules and then use its mycelia to break them apart. It is actually degrading certain kind of plastic into microplastic!
This particular fungus eats ‘polyester polyurethane’, which is used in a lot of objects, including tyres, condoms, hoses, supermarket trolleys, car suspension bushings, and some glues.

Also, a new species of bacteria Ideonella sakaiensis, has been found to break down PET (polyethylene terephthalate) which is widely used to produce plastic drink bottles and makes up nearly 1/6 of the world’s annual plastic production!
The bacteria uses enzymes to break down the PET and generate an intermediate chemical, which is afterward taken up by the cell, to be broken down even further by other enzymes, and in the end, providing the bacteria with carbon and energy to grow.

Great! It must be a win-win, because it solves a lot of problems, including the animal killings, right?
Small pieces of plastic instead of big pieces, can’t entangle the animals.


“Can I have the soup with fish, cigarette butts and plastic bits, please?”

Maybe the animals will not get tangled up as much, but the microplastic adds a whole lot of trouble to the drama. Even microplastic affects animals, such as the important corals that are starving because the microplastic blocks their digestive system!
The tidal forces, sun, UV radiation is breaking down plastic in the oceans, which forms a plastic soup filled with toxins and microscopic plastic particles. Fish mistakes the plastic fragments for plankton and eat it. 

We are told that eating fish is healthy with its good Omega-3s and proteins, and something that a balanced diet should include. However, nowhere in the food pyramid does the plastic occur.
But since we put a lot of plastic in the ocean, it comes out – neatly packed in the form of our fish-dinner.
So we eat plastic – and a lot of it actually comes from our clothes!
A lot of the clothes we wear, are made up of synthetic material, also known as highly flexible plastic fibers, that are cheap to produce.  

Every time we wash just a single piece of synthetic clothes, we release 1,900 plastic microfibers from our washing machine into the water, and finally into the sea.
Micro plastic is easily ingested by the marine life and therefore, it’s the new food chain: fish eats plastic, we eat fish – we get the microplastic as a hidden treat. We are eating 1 credit card per week!

Humans have the option to just not eat fish and then try to avoid the plastic consumption.
The sad news?
It’s not just in our seafood; it is believed that we ingest between 40-50.000 microplastic particles per year from our food, drinking water, beer, honey, sugar etc. This number could be as high as 74.000 pieces if we include the estimate of the number of pieces that we inhale.”


Figure 1 Degradation of plastics leading to microplastic ingestion. Braden Wilkinson, Two Oceans Aquarium 

Nature is our hero - be natures hero

It can be hard to see a way out of this mess and it can quickly seem like it must be ‘all or nothing’ in order to succeed.
A little goes a long way, and it is always better that everyone does a little, rather than a few doing a lot!

Quick tips to get started is to: refuse, recycle, pick reusable alternatives, and most importantly, pick up litter whenever you see it!
You surely have pockets that can fit some trash – imagen if everybody picked up 3 things a day?

Companies also need to take responsibility, and some does, either banning plastic or launching alternatives to plastic products.
Lego – a company, which relies on plastic in their products - has just launched their plant-based material kit made out of sustainably sourced sugar cane, as a step to achieve 100% sustainability by 

Sustainability, however, is a wide concept, as it’s not always the solution to just swap into stuff made out of trees!

Europe, Canada and more in the wake, are now banning single-use plastic.
Airports are quitting selling plastic water bottles, and in Rome you can trade in plastic bottles for metro tickets.

You can also, easily be natures hero - today, tomorrow, every day.

Rule of thumb: Leave nothing but footprints.


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