Plankton or Plastic?

By: Dana Sackett

At the end of this article you will get to play a game that many aquatic species are playing these days: Plankton or Plastic? If aquatic animals get it right and choose plankton, they get to enjoy a tasty treat full of life-sustaining nutrition, if not, they fill the much-needed space in their gut with an inert trash that contains toxic chemicals and does not provide nutrition. Let’s see if you can tell the difference?

The 2008 North Pacific Gyre Expedition aboard the ORV Alguita discovered the widespread ingestion of plastic particles by fish that forage on plankton at night on the ocean surface. A surprising 35 percent of these fish had ingested micro-plastic particles, the record holder having 84 fragments. (Algalita). Source:

But first, let’s talk about plastics in the aquatic environment. Plastics are derived from oil and gas and were first mass produced in the 1940s. Since the 1940s, the production of plastics has grown drastically.  Indeed, 8% of oil production in 2009 made 230 million tons of plastic. After serving relatively brief uses, most plastics end-up in landfills and aquatic ecosystems, often taking centuries to degrade.

The great Pacific garbage patch in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, off the western coast of the United States. Source:

The most pervasive plastics to end up in our aquatic ecosystems are microplastics. Many scientists define these as plastics less than 5mm or as plastics that can only be seen with a microscope. While some microplastics are created by larger plastics (macroplastics) being broken down over time, many are rinsed directly down our drain and into the environment from cosmetics and personal care products, such as toothpastes, soaps, facial cleansers, liquid hand-cleaners, and body washes. Microplastic “scrubbers,” began replacing natural exfoliators, such as ground nuts, coffee grounds, oatmeal, sugar, and pumice, in the 1980s. Products with microplastics are now widespread in markets across the globe and are often used daily in many households.

Microplastics in facial cleanser brands A–D. Scale bar in all panels except H 500 lm. These facial cleansers also included coloured inclusions with unknown chemical compositions (E-H). Source: Fendall and Sewell 2009.

The primary concerns with microplastics are that, because of their composition and small size, they can leach toxic chemicals (such as phthalates and bisphenol A) into the water, and aquatic organisms mistake them for food; and not just any food but plankton, the food that makes-up the base of the food web. Everything from zooplankton to whales have been consuming microplastics. Just recently marine zooplankton were captured on film ingesting plastic for the first time (see video below).

Eating microplastic material is problematic because it can block feeding, stop the passage of food through the gut, or fill the gut causing animals to think they are satisfied when they have not had enough nutrition, leading to starvation. In addition, organic contaminants (such as PCBs and dioxin) adhere to microplastics, and are thus transported into organisms that eat the microplastics (see Plastic Trash is an increasing but preventable hazard to fish health).

Sperm whale that died in 2013 (left) and a killer whale that died in 2014 (right) due to plastic ingestion. Sources:;

However, there are a number of people trying to help solve our environmental plastic problem. For instance, many states have begun to introduce legislation to ban products with microplastics from the marketplace, and a young man from the Netherlands may have a solution to the gyres of plastic in the ocean (see the video below). One way we can help is to stop using one-time-use plastic products (plastic forks or bags), recycle plastic items properly, and to stop buying products that have microplastics in them and instead buy items with natural exfoliators. Microplastics are often listed in the ingredients of most products as polyethylene, polypropylene, polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene, polyethylene tere-phthalate, microbead, or something similar.


Now onto our new game: Plankton or Plastic? Let’s see if you can tell the difference below. Pick out the plastic item or items in the four pictures below (they get a bit harder as you go down). After taking a good look, scroll down to see the same pictures with the plastic circled in orange.

plankton or plastic pic1


plankton or plastic pic2

That last one is a trick, there are no plastics in this picture, but it is pretty amazing that a lot of those plankton look like the images of plastic above. How many did you get right? Add the number you got correct in a comment below.


References and additional information:

Andrady AL. 2011. Microplastics in the marine environment. Marine Pollution Bulletin 62:1596-1605.

Cole M, Lindeque P, Halsband C, Galloway TS. 2011. Microplastics as contaminants in the marine environment: a review. Marine Pollution Bulletin 62:2588-2597.

Cole M, Lindeque P, Fileman E, Halsband C, Goodhead R, Moger J, Galloway TS. 2013. Microplastic ingestion by zooplankton. 47:6646-6655.

Eriksen M, Lebreton LCM, Carson HS, Thiel M, Moore CJ, Borerro JC, Galgani F, Ryan PG, Reisser J. 2014. Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans: more than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons afloat at sea. PLoS One 9:e111913

Fendall LS, Sewell MA. 2009. Contributing to marine pollution by washing your face: Microplastics in facial cleansers. Marine Pollution Bulletin 58: 1225-1228.

Ivar do Sul JA, Costa MF. 2014. The present and future of microplastic pollution in the marine environment. Environmental Pollution 185:352-364.

Katsnelson A. 2015. News Feature: Microplastics present pollution puzzle. PNAS 112:5547-5549.

Thompson RC, Moore CJ, vom Saal FS, Swan SH. 2009. Plastics, the environment and human health: current consensus and future trends. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364:2153–2166.

Thompson RC, Swan SH, Moore CJ, vom Saal FS. 2009. Our plastic age. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364:1973–1976.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Jim V. says:

    Nice article Dana. There was also a write-up in a recent Outside magazine about micro-plastic fibers in the aquatic environment coming from washing fleece outerwear.

  2. Yes, its a relevant article to read, many times i also found this kinds of issues during my research expeditions
    Nice demonstration about the impact.

  3. Plastic manufacturing Company is the best for the injection molding. Molding making is an integral part of the plastic injection molding process. I like your blog its really nice.

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