Do Fish Get Microplastic Indigestion?
by Rick Waggoner
Picture this: You’ve got a huge Striped Bass on the line. It’s a 20 pounder, no doubt! The fight takes a solid 20 minutes just to get this monster up to the boat. You’re pumped! Your buddies are envious of your good fortune. Man oh man, what a day! This will be one to tell your grandkids about.
Later in the day, you carve out some massive filets. You can nearly taste these babies as you imagine putting them on the grill.
Then you notice something strange. The intestines of the fish appear to have something hard in them. Your curiosity gets the best of you, so you cut them open and a small bowl full of tiny beads pours out.
“Oh my goodness”, you say. “What has this fish eaten?”
A quick search on your phone confirms your suspicions; this fish has digested a bunch of plastic!
But wait, is that really a problem? I mean, doesn’t it just pass through and cause no harm?
Further reading kinda ruins your day… Well, at least your dinner. Your eyes have been opened to one of the most pressing environmental catastrophes in the history of the world.
Is This Problem Worse Than Oil Spills?
It’s hard to imagine anything worse for the environment than millions of gallons of crude oil pouring into an ecosystem. Well, at least that used to be the case.
There’s a new kid on the block that’s wrecking havoc, and you will rarely see anything about it in the news. This problem is the proliferation of microplastics in our streams, rivers and oceans.
A primary microplastic called “nurdles” has made its way into our waters. An estimated 250,000 tons of nurdles enter our oceans each year.
Nurdles are the building blocks of plastic goods. Equal to the size of a lentil, these beads are melted down to mold many of the things we use each day. Plastic bottles, plastic cups, drinking straws, toothbrushes, pens, medicine bottles… All of these things were once nurdles
How Are Nurdles Getting Into the Water?
The simple answer to this question is that mankind puts them there. When nurdles are transported from one factory to another, some of them get lost in the process. This often involves crossing international borders, which makes it difficult to determine who’s responsible when something goes wrong.
In 2017, for example, a storm caused two containers of nurdles to dump into Durban Harbor in South Africa. An estimated 49 tons – around two billion nurdles – poured into the water during the incident. Today these are still washing up on beaches in Australia and other parts of the world.
Factories that use nurdles in production often don’t have a cohesive plan for how to manage spillage. As small as nurdles are, it’s next to impossible to prevent 100% of the nurdles from being lost.
Large quantities of nurdles are often moved around using forklifts. It doesn’t take much for a bag to pierce open and spill out in the course of a day.
If you’ve ever tried to pour any quantity of small objects from a bag into a container, you know that some don’t hit their intended target.
Without a robust plan for cleaning up nurdle spills, these tiny beads roll into drainage systems and float out to sea.
Sufficient laws are not in place to require responsible handling and disposal of materials. The ones that are, such as the Clean Water Act, still allow “reasonable” quantities of pollutants to be discharged into the environment with a permit. Say what?
What Does This Have to Do With Digestion… Well, Indigestion
Since they are small, round and, often white or clear, nurdles get confused for fish eggs by fish, birds and other forms of marine wildlife.[1 Two hundred and twenty species of wildlife are known to ingest microplastic debris.
The presence of plastics in fish can cause jabbing, lacerations and inflammation in their intestines. This creates a sense of feeling full, which can lead to starvation.
The greater issue at hand is the presence of Persistent Bioaccumulating Toxins – PBT’s – in the plastics, which absorb toxins like a sponge. PBT’s such as DDT, mercury and various industrial chemicals seep into the bloodstream and fatty tissues of fish from plastics, which poses a risk to both humans and animals.
What Can I Do to Help Solve This Global Issue?
Pass on a Legacy of Conservation
As you teach your kids to shop, take into consideration the volume of plastic you consume and toward what end. Do you depend heavily on single-use plastics? Are you teaching your kids to do the same?
It’s unlikely that people are going to stop using plastic. So, learning how to responsibly buy, reuse and dispose of plastic is key.
Our Blue Schools initiative is also a great opportunity for kids to learn about the environment. We offer educational activities for kids of all ages to take part in building a greener tomorrow. For more information about Blue Schools contact Karisa@blueoceanproject.org.
Participate in Cleanups
Being involved with cleanups is personally rewarding. You get to be hands on as part of the solution instead of being hands on as part of the problem.
Unfortunately, not all nurdles are created equally, as they are manufactured from various materials. Being as small as they are, there’s not yet a way to efficiently sort each kind of plastic for recycling.
Regardless, no one wants millions of nurdles littering our beaches. Keep in mind when you clean them up to wear rubber gloves to protect yourself from the toxins. You should pick them up with tweezers whenever possible. Make sure to wash your hands after handling nurdles. Learn more about how plastic ends up on beaches.
Spread the Word
Once you catch the nurdle cleanup bug, you’ll quickly find yourself with a jar-full of nurdles. If you decided to dispose of them, be sure to pack them in a sealed bag or container so they can’t accidentally flow back into the ocean.
However, if you’re up for it, proudly display your nurdle jar where guests can see it. Not having guests over during the pandemic? Post it on Facebook. Either way, it will make an interesting conversation piece to raise awareness among your friends. Read more about the shark crisis.
Author Bio: Rick Waggoner is a husband, father, writer, and clean-water advocate, based in Villa Rica, GA. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org