Scientists find hidden plastics in the sea

Credit: Naja Bertolt Jensen / Unsplash

Imagine millions of tons of plastic waste, like water bottles, food wrappers, and clothes, getting tossed into the ocean every year.

Over time, the sun’s rays and the churning waves break these plastics down into tiny, invisible pieces so small they’re called nanoplastics.

For the first time, a group of smart engineers has managed to see these tiny plastics in ocean water, showing us what they really look like and what they’re made of.

These engineers collected water from different places around the world, including the seas near China, South Korea, the United States, and a special area in the Gulf of Mexico.

They discovered that these minuscule plastic bits come in all sorts of shapes and are made from different materials.

This is important because these tiny plastics might be more dangerous to ocean animals than the bigger pieces of plastic we can see.

Tengfei Luo, a professor who knows a lot about engineering, shared that these tiny plastics can sneak into the bodies of sea creatures more easily than larger plastics can.

This could be bad for the animals and the environment. Before this study, scientists only studied plastics made in labs to guess how harmful these plastics could be to marine life.

But Luo and his team thought that the real plastics floating in the oceans might look and act differently than those made-up versions in the labs.

To find these almost invisible plastics, the team used a clever method involving bubbles and silver particles. They mixed ocean water with tiny silver bits and heated it up with a laser to create a bubble.

This bubble helped gather the nanoplastics onto its surface. When the bubble disappeared, it left behind a small pile of nanoplastics, which the scientists could then study closely to see their shapes and what they’re made of.

What they found was quite surprising. They identified nanoplastics made from materials like nylon, polystyrene, and PET (the stuff many water bottles and food packages are made of).

Some of these tiny plastic pieces even came from deep in the ocean, showing that this problem isn’t just on the surface; it’s everywhere.

The shapes of these nanoplastics varied a lot, which the team figured might be due to the different ways these plastics were originally made.

Finding PET particles deep in the Gulf of Mexico was especially unexpected, pointing out that these tiny pollutants have spread far and wide in the ocean.

Now, the team wants to figure out exactly how much of these nanoplastics are in the ocean. Luo mentioned that the real nanoplastics they found are quite different from the ones made in labs.

This discovery is a big step towards understanding how dangerous these tiny plastics could be to marine life and what we can do to reduce their impact.

This peek into the hidden world of nanoplastics in our oceans, published in a study in Science Advances, opens the door to finding new ways to protect our marine ecosystems from these invisible threats.

The research findings can be found in Science Advances.

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