Plastic soup: from plankton to our plates

Alice Wilson-McNeal looks at how plastic could severely inhibit the global food chain.

Photography: Matthew Cole


In the last few years, it’s become general knowledge that there’s a field of plastic bigger than Texas floating in the North Pacific. What’s less well known is that this garbage patch isn’t usually visible, even if you were to swim through it. It’s made up of millions of tiny particles, many so small you’d need a microscope to see them. We call these “microplastics”, and they’re a huge problem.


Microplastics aren’t just found here but from the Arctic to the Antarctic, in coastal waters and deep seas. Huge numbers are on our doorstep in the English Channel. You might have heard of microbeads, tiny spheres added to cosmetics by the thousand, which end up in the sea when they’re washed down the drain, but this isn’t the only source. Bigger plastic keeps breaking down into smaller pieces, never disappearing completely. Bags, bottles, old electronics, and synthetic clothing will all eventually become microplastics.

So what’s so bad about tiny plastic? All kinds of animals mistake bigger plastics for food, from birds to turtles to dolphins. When they eat it their guts become blocked, and they soak up any added chemicals, slowly starving in the process. Now scale this down to the tiniest animals in the ocean: plankton. They’re the base of the marine food-web; everything eats plankton, or eats something that eats plankton. Imagine a blue whale, which eats nothing but plankton, called krill. Imagine how many billions of tiny krill this whale eats. Now imagine if, based on an American study, one in seventeen krill ate microplastics. What if it killed them, and there weren’t enough left to go around? What if they weren’t, and the whale ate them? How about if those pieces were full of toxic chemicals? How much plastic would it take to kill a whale? A fish? An oyster? And what about when those animals are eaten by us?

However responsibly we dispose of plastic some will end up in the ocean. So, what’s to be done? Other countries have agreed to phase out microbeads, and we’re putting the pressure on parliament to follow suit. The plastic bag levy has had a huge impact on how many are produced. With some planning, it’s easy to cut down on your own plastic use: think how many of your groceries come in unnecessary packaging, how easy it is to reuse a water bottle rather than buying a new one. It’s easy to feel powerless compared to a Texas-sized field, but consider this: if everyone in the UK used a quarter less plastic there would be 100,000 tons less thrown away annually. Estimates put the amount of plastic in the Pacific patch at 80,000 tons. That’s a whole lot of plastic, but we’re capable of a whole lot more.