According to Marcus Eriksen, a co-founder of the conservation group 5 Gyres, “If you were to stand on the bottom of the ocean in the middle of a gyre and look up, the water overhead wouldn’t look clear … What you’d see are these massive clouds. Clouds of micro- and nanoplastics stuck in the ocean’s gyres.”

The tiny plastic particles filling up our oceans are not without consequence. It’s long been known that various forms of marine life are ingesting the plastic, but this was thought to be an accident, or perhaps that they were drawn in by an aspect of its appearance. New research suggests, however, that fish may be actively seeking out the plastic particles, mistaking them for food because of their odor.5

When microplastics exist in the ocean, they form a biological covering made of algae and other materials that smell like the food the fish would normally eat. The study is the first to reveal not only that anchovy use odors to forage, but also that the odor of microplastic in the ocean induces foraging behaviors in schools of the fish. Study author Matthew Savoca, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

More than 50 species of fish are known to ingest plastic debris, according to the researchers, who noted that the plastic can cause lethal and sublethal problems in fish as well as serve as a “route for bioaccumulation of toxic compounds throughout the food web.”Ingestion of micro- and nanoplastics by fish has been linked to intestinal blockage, physical damage, alterations in the intestines, change in behavior, change in lipid metabolism, transfer to the liver and more.

Previous research has also shown that foraging seabirds are attracted to microplastics because of their smell. “Marine-seasoned microplastics produce a dimethyl sulfide (DMS) signature [the smell of algae] … creating an olfactory trap for susceptible marine wildlife,” the researchers noted.

Savoca suggested that changing the surface of plastics to be less hospitable to algae could stop making them smell so good to marine life, but another solution would be to use less plastic in the first place, particularly in the case of single-use disposable products. Data obtained by The Guardian suggests 1 million plastic bottles are purchased every minute worldwide. Worse still, this is expected to increase by 20 percent by 2021 and reach more than half a trillion sold every year by 2020.

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