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Roughly a third of fish caught off the southwest coast of England show traces of “microplastic” contamination from synthetic clothing fibers, polyester from bags and plastic bottles, and “microbeads” used in facial scrubs and exfoliators, according to scientists from Plymouth University and the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. In a study that explored the occurrence of plastic in 10 species of fish caught in the English Channel, biologists found minuscule pieces of plastic, less than 1 millimeters in size, in the gastrointestinal tracts of more than 36 percent of the 504 fish they examined. A spectrometer identified over half of the 351 items they removed as rayon, a manmade fiber derived from regenerated cellulose that’s widely used in garments and sanitary products.

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Other plastics included those “from the breakdown of larger items such as bags and bottles’ polyester,” as well as plastic microbeads and microcrystals used as abrasives in pore-refining skincare products.

Microplastic debris can be detrimental to fish because they create blockages in their digestive systems.

“We have previously shown that on shorelines worldwide and on the seabed and in the water column around the U.K., these tiny fragments of plastic are widespread,” Richard Thompson, a professor of marine biology at Plymouth University, says in a statement. “But this new reseach has shown that such fragments are also being ingested by fish. Laboratory studies on mussels have shown that some organisms can retain plastic after ingestion, hence microplastic debris could also accumulate in natural populations.”

Microplastic debris can be detrimental to fish because they create blockages in their digestive systems or provide them with the false sensation of satiety, he says. Because chemicals can “latch on” to the plastic fragments, they could also make it easier for pollutants in surrounding waters to find their way into the food chain.

Moreover, Thompson adds, there’s no need to have plastic debris in the sea in the first place. “These materials are inherently very recyclable, but regrettably they’ve been at the heart of our throwaway culture for the last few decades,” he says. “We need to recognise the value of plastics at the end of their lives and need help from industry and manufacturers to widen the potential for everyday products to be reusable and recyclable.”

[Via the Guardian]