The harmful effects of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans are well documented, but there’s a new angle to the risks that is just now getting attention. Tiny plankton are unwittingly contributing to the demise of the ocean’s food web by collecting and passing along microscopic plastic pellets through their waste products. Because of the added weight, marine life at the bottom of the ocean end up ingesting the plastic-filled poop, causing a host of problems for the entire ecosystem.

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Let’s trace the problem step by step. People throw away plastic items, and some 13 million metric tons of it winds up in the oceans each year. The plastic breaks up over time into tiny plastic fragments, which make their way through plankton’s digestive system, and pass through in their excrement. The resulting pellets of waste are heavier than what plankton normally pass, so they sink. The plastic-tainted poop then becomes food (sorry) for all manner of fish, crustaceans, and other organisms living at the bottom of the ocean.

Related: Did you know there could be plastic particles in your sea salt?

What happens next is quite disturbing. Ingesting plastic causes direct harm for the fish and other sea creatures that consume it, creating even more instability for populations already under threat from human activity. However, the microplastics can also make their way into the human food supply. A 2015 study found plastic in 25 percent of fish and 33 percent of shellfish sampled in California markets, which is just one of the many reasons to consider avoiding seafood. One of the most disconcerting aspects of the problem of ocean plastic is that it is ever growing. Recent reports predict there will be more plastic trash in the ocean than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The new findings were published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology

Via Grist

Images via Wikipedia and Stephen Woolverton