When beach-goers litter, the waste washes out to sea and may break up into smaller pieces.
A study conducted by researchers at Tel Aviv University discovered that an alarming amount of microplastics – miniscule pieces of plastic that are ingested by aquatic creatures – have been found in the bodies of maritime organisms along Israel’s coastline, with some being particularly damaging to the coral reef in Eilat.

The organisms, which are mainly ascidian species, are sac-like invertebrate filter feeders and are similar to sponges.
These hazardous materials are then ingested by other marine organisms who feed off the ascidians and so on and so forth, moving up the food chain to reach the bodies of marine worms, mollusks, crustaceans, fish, seabirds, mammals and even deep-sea creatures. Once ingested, these substances decrease fertility among organisms and may cause other possible genetic mutations, furthering the consumption of plastic into marine organisms.

Prof. Noa Shenkar of the School of Zoology at TAU’s Faculty of Life Sciences led the research with the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, Prof. Dror Avisar, head of the Water Research Center at TAU and Aviv Kaplan a postgraduate student in Avisar’s laboratory.

Gal Vered, a PhD student in Shenkar’s laboratory and co-author of the study explained: “Solitary ascidians are excellent examples of the state of pollution that affects many other marine organisms. Our findings are extremely disturbing. Even in protected beaches, there was evidence of microplastics and plastic additives in ascidians. At every sampling site, we discovered varying levels of these pollutants.”

When beach-goers litter, the waste washes out to sea and may break up into smaller pieces. These particles – microplastics – are then swallowed up by organisms. Prof. Shenkar continued: “This is a direct result of human use of plastic. It may seem that plastic bags and bulky plastic products that we notice floating in the sea are the major problem. But a more important cause for concern is the fragmentation of these products into smaller particles that are then ingested by many organisms and reach even the deepest zones in the ocean.”

One particularly harmful group of plastics – phthalate acid esters (PAEs) – are considered deleterious pollutants in many countries. PAEs are found in numerous human products such as paints, detergents, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and even in some food items. One well-known version of PAE is polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, a well-known plastic found in many toys, packaging, medical devices and apparel. PVCs are known for their high lipophilic disposition, meaning they are averse to water but may be easily and partially dissolved in biological fluids. In turn, this allows the build up of these materials in marine organisms.

The scientists used a unique chemical analysis that tested for phtalates present in organism tissue. They ran the tests without contaminating any of the tissues by the plastic tools that were used in the experiment. Ascidians were chosen for the analysis, since they are able to survive in a variety of marine-based environments.

The scientists hope that by releasing these results to the public, they can further enhance public awareness to combat plastic pollution.