Plastics: All the Way Up

Courtney Cryan

Ecosystems are negatively affected when humans do not dispose of their plastic or synthetic waste properly. Organisms within nature often mistake our litter as food, which can be detrimental to their health or cause their death. Plastics can be found in every ecosystem, but can lead eventually to the oceans and other waterways. The different ecosystems are all interconnected through the variety of living beings and their feeding habits, which make up a food web. Plastics have worked their way into these important systems causing lasting negative effects. 

Plastics are found in so many parts of our daily lives. It has come to seem inescapable, but with more awareness of its dangers, more companies are finding alternatives to plastic products. This material takes hundreds to thousands of years to break down but when they do, they become so small that you don’t even know that they are there; these tiny pieces are called microplastics. Plastic pollution affects all ecosystems and organisms. If a piece of plastic is littered in the woods, animals such as deer and birds may see it as food. With rain showers, the plastic pieces found in forests can run into the rivers, lakes, and other waterways. Due to the expanding human population, the amount of garbage is growing as well, leading to more plastic pollution in the ocean. Plastics are made with harmful pollutants that give off chemicals, affecting the air, soil, or water around it. When an animal eats plastic, it will stay in their stomachs and if enough is eaten, then the animal may feel full or unwell, eventually starving the animal of good nutrients that they need to survive. If plastic pieces are large enough, then it can cause blockage in an animal’s gastrointestinal tract leading to diseases in the future.

Within all ecosystems and more specifically food webs, there are many interconnections and hierarchies. The food webs are the linkages between the organisms, while food chains are the single line from the producers to the decomposers. Food chains contain at least six levels, but typically there are many more levels involved. It starts with the producers, or autotrophs, who are able to make their own food through photosynthesis. Then it goes to the primary consumers, or the herbivores; these organisms are the ones who eat the producers. Next, it goes to the secondary consumers who eat the herbivores. And on to the tertiary consumers who eat the secondary. During these consumer levels, there can be many players involved before reaching the main predator! Then the apex predators eat the consumers. Humans are considered omnivorous apex predators, meaning that we eat both animal and plant products. The last level of the chain are the decomposers, or detritivores, who eat the dead plant and animal remains. They are very important to our ecosystems as they return the nutrients to the soil to be used again by other organisms. Each level and all the organisms within it carry importance, therefore plastics in the environment can throw an entire chain out of whack. 

Example of a Food Chain

Phytoplankton produce their own food and are the size of microplastics

Zooplankton eat the phytoplankton. But when they consume them, they are also eating the microplastics. 

The Small Fish eat the zooplankton with the plastics. At this stage, they are big enough so that if they see a piece of plastic then they could eat it themselves. 

The Medium Fish, like mackerel, eat the smaller fish. Plastics have been found at the deep parts of the oceans, therefore it being unavoidable for the fish to not consume it. 

The Big Fish, like snapper, eat the medium sized fish, bringing the plastics from the zooplankton all the way up. The big fish are then caught and sold at different markets and grocery stores. 

In this food chain, the last stop is Humans. There was research done that found that humans actually eat about a credit card size amount of plastic from the fish they eat weekly if you are eating fish more frequently. In a year, the typical human is eating about 250 milligrams of plastic from their seafood. 

This general framework demonstrates how plastics can go all the way up the food chain and end up having detrimental effects each step of the way. Plastics can enter at the beginning of the chain or at any level of consumption. They not only have physical effects on organisms, but can also poison them by emitting chemicals that were absorbed during processing. This can cause diseases and illness when there is enough build-up in an organism’s system. If society – including individuals and corporations – made changes in their daily habits, it could have great benefit for all ecosystems and all organisms within them. Some simple changes you can make are using a steel straw (or no straws at all), a reusable water bottle, reusable bags, and trying your best to buy food that isn’t wrapped in plastic packaging, purchase food in bulk sections of markets, or search for products packaged in biodegradable packaging. 

Sources: Earth Eclipse, National Geographic, One Green Planet, ThoughtCo., U.S. National Library of Medicine; World Wildlife Fund; Plastic Soup Foundation