The Negative Impact of Styrofoam on our Oceans and Food Chain

Styrofoam/EPS is a product that causes considerable environmental impact because it is not economically beneficial to recycle yet extremely efficient to use in the biomedical, pharmaceutical, life sciences, fish, and food delivery industries. Hence, the majority of Styrofoam ends up in our waterways, landfills, and streets.

Marine waste has increased dramatically over the last century, and Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) is a big part of that waste. (1) Plastics including EPS are a very significant part of the problem and are considered to be the most persistent and most problematic. (2)

EPS waste is a significant portion of the Pacific garbage patch, a huge component of shore debris or litter, and it harms seabirds and animals. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific trash vortex, spans waters from the West Coast of North America to Japan.

Beyond contributing to the garbage patch in large chunks, as EPS breaks into smaller and smaller pieces it is consumed by a variety of marine life, ends up in fish and ultimately makes its way up the food chain. Marine debris can be very harmful to marine life. For instance, loggerhead sea turtles often mistake plastic pieces for jellies, their favorite food. Albatrosses mistake plastic plastic pieces for fish eggs and feed them to chicks, which die of starvation or ruptured organs. (3)

Scientists call these small pieces of EPS and other plastics, which are formed as plastic breaks down, microplastics. These are extremely small particles which have some observed negative consequences. This is a newer area of research and all the risks aren’t completely understood.

However, we do know microplastics lead to obstruction of the digestive system, clogging of feeding appendages, nutritional deprivation, bioaccumulation, migration into the circulatory system, and in some cases death. (4,5,6,7)

We do know that EPS is a significant source of these microplastics as it breaks down. (8) Polystyrene’s contribution to microplastics has been documented in 42 international studies. (9)

Microplastics are also being discovered in all manner of sea life across the world both in oceans and in fresh water. For example, plastics were found in 82% of Lake Superior Herring in 2013.

Plastics were discovered in mussels in Nova Scotia. (10) In the North Sea, 10 different species of fish were examined. Depending on the species between 23% and 52% of the samples collected contained microplastics. (11)

The movement up the food chain of microplastics is called trophic transfer by scientists. (12) It’s very clear that this is happening, but it’s not yet clear what the exact impact on humans who consume this EPS infused seafood will be.

References:

  1. Galgani, F., N. Zampoukas, D. Fleet, J. v. Franeker, S. Katsanevakis, T. Maes, J. Mouat, L. Oosterbaan, I. Poitou and G. Hanke (2010). Marine Strategy Framework Directive: Task Group 10 Report Marine Litter. Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.
  2. Hopewell, J., R. Dvorak and E. Kosior (2009). Plastics recycling: challenges and opportunities. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 364(1526): 2115-2126.
  3. National Geographic Societ Encyclopedic Entry; Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
  4. E. L. Teuten et al., Transport and release of chemicals from plastics to the environment and to wildlife. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. B Biol. Sci.. 364, 2027–2045 (2009).
  5. P. S. Tourinho, J. A. Ivar do Sul, G. Fillmann, Is marine debris ingestion still a problem for the coastal marine biota of southern Brazil? Mar. Pollut. Bull.. 60, 396–401 (2010).
  6. J. G. Derraik, The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a review. Mar. Pollut. Bull.. 44, 842–852 (2002).
  7. S. L. Wright, R. C. Thompson, T. S. Galloway, The physical impacts of microplastics on marine organisms: a review. Environ. Pollut. Barking Essex 1987. 178, 483–492 (2013).
  8. M. Cole, P. Lindeque, C. Halsband, T. S. Galloway, Microplastics as contaminants in the marine environment: A review. Mar. Pollut. Bull.. 62, 2588–2597 (2011).
  9. Hildago-Ruz, V., L. Gutow, R. C. Thompson and M. Thiel (2012). Microplastics in the marine environment: a review of the methods used for identification and quantification. Environmental Science and Technology 46(6): 3060-3075.
  10. Mathalon, P. Hill, Microplastic fibers in the intertidal ecosystem surrounding Halifax Harbor, Nova Scotia. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 81, 69–79 (2014).
  11. Lusher, A. L., M. McHugh and R. C. Thompson (2013). Occurrence of microplastics in the gastrointestinal tract of pelagic and demersal fish from the English Channel. Marine Pollution Bulletin 67: 94-99.
  12. Setälä, V. Fleming-Lehtinen, M. Lehtiniemi, Ingestion and transfer of microplastics in the planktonic food web. Environ. Pollut.. 185, 77–83 (2014).