(1 is a piece of plastic, and 2-6 are the critters that live on it.)
Why don’t we find the tiniest plastic particles in our nets? It’s always puzzled us why particles less than .5mm are less abundant than those between .5mm and 1mm. You would think the opposite would be true, but remember we’re only skimming the surface of the sea. We focused on the microplastic we collected in the North Pacific Gyre in 2011 and found something interesting that we just published.
5 Gyres Institute co-authored a paper written by Hank Carson and colleagues about the microorganisms that live with microplastic in the North Pacific Gyre. Lot’s of diatoms and bacteria will hang out with plastic pollution, regardless of how cold or salty the water is, and especially on degraded plastic with rough surfaces. This leads us to think that as plastic degrades in the ocean, it becomes more habitable for microorganisms, which could make it heavier than water. Or even make it more tasty to larger organisms that eat bacteria-coated things! We now know when studying the full lifecycle of plastic waste in our oceans, microorganisms matter.
This is a piece to a larger puzzle. What is the “end game” of plastic pollution? If we can stop the flow of plastic to our seas, will it still be around a century from now? Will it be on the ocean surface? And what role do microorganisms play? We’re now one little step closer to the answer.