It’s already been cast as an economic villain, to the tune of $2.5 trillion, disrupting “almost all marine ecosystem services” and suffocating every industry it touches.
Now, plastic pollution in oceans could actually be suffocating the planet – by harming the tiny microorganisms that are “thought to be responsible for up to 10 percent of … total global oxygen production.”
According to a new study in the scientific journal Communications Biology, the chemicals that leak from plastic waste floating around in the ocean may stop the bacteria known as Prochlorococcus from producing oxygen.
“We found that exposure to chemicals leaching from plastic pollution interfered with the growth, photosynthesis and oxygen production of Prochlorococcus, the ocean’s most abundant photosynthetic bacteria,” said the study’s lead author and Macquarie University researcher, Dr. Sasha Tetu, in a statement.
It’s estimated that there are 3 octillion Prochlorococcus living in the world’s oceans. To get a sense of how enormous that is, there are roughly 7.5 billion people on the planet. That means there are approximately 430 quadrillion Prochlorococcus for every single person on Earth.
During the research, the scientists took fragments of grey plastic grocery bags and PVC matting and put them in artificial seawater for five days. Multiple strains of Prochlorococcus were then exposed to the seawater and the researchers found their growth patterns had changed and the amount of oxygen they produced had changed as well.
To make matters worse, one of the strains of bacteria stopped producing oxygen completely after 24 hours after being exposed to the chemicals from PVC.