In the 1967 movie The Graduate, 21-year-old Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman) receives a hint for the future from a friend of his parents, Mr. McGuire, at a cocktail party to mark his graduation from college. He takes aside the young man, who is worried about his future, and says one word: “Plastics!” When Benjamin seems confused, McGuire continues: “There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.”
While plastics are a huge global industry that has produced cheap and utilitarian products for everyone and revolutionized the world, in the long term, this was one of the least beneficial pieces of avuncular advice ever given to a young person. Plastic, made from natural materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and crude oil, is discarded everywhere because it is so cheap. And the world is choking to death from this tidal wave of omnipresent material.
The researchers, working in the laboratory of Prof. Noa Shenkar of Tel Aviv University’s School of Zoology and the Steinhardt Nature Museum, examined invertebrates (animals that lack a spine or backbone, including insects, sea creatures such as crabs, lobsters, clams, jellyfish, and worms) from nine sites along the coast of Israel – the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Eilat.
Along all of the coasts, micro-plastic particles less than five millimeters long were found in the invertebrates’ bodies, as well as chemicals used in the production processes of plastics that are known to be harmful to living organisms including humans.
The sea creatures also contained phthalates –chemicals used in the plastics industry that cause a variety of health problems including hormonal changes.
The study, led by doctoral student Gal Vered of the school of zoology in TAU’s Faculty of Life Sciences, and in collaboration with Prof. Dror Avisar and Aviv Kaplan of the School of Environmental and Earth Sciences at the Faculty of Exact Sciences, was published in the latest issue of the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.
“Plastic pollution at sea and the damage it causes to the marine environment in general and to marine animals in particular are a burning current issue in the field of nature protection, said Shenkar. “World Environment Day last June was dedicated to this topic.” Shenkar noted that in 2017, about 335 million tons of plastic were produced.
Indeed, according to Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, people use huge quantities of plastic – every minute, a million plastic bottles are purchased in the world, and 500 billion plastic bags are used each year. A large part of the plastic that Israelis consume, about eight million tons a year, reaches the oceans. This is the equivalent of a loaded truck that spills into the sea each minute. In addition, according to recent estimates, 80% of all marine pollution today originates in plastic products.
“In the marine environment, plastic products break down into tiny particles called micro-plastic, which range from several tens of microns (microns per million meters) to five millimeters, so most of them cannot be seen by the naked eye,” noted Shenkar. “In addition, they release various chemicals used by the plastics industry to impart a variety of properties to its products – such as flexibility, strength and color – but can cause various and severe damage to living organisms.”
For the first time in the world, the TAU researchers used an invertebrate animal called a “sea squirt,” which is common in all marine habitats around the world and particularly suitable for this kind of research. The sea squirt, which has a rounded, leathery body and two short siphons, lives on reefs, pilings and other hard surfaces in shallow water. It feeds by drawing water into the body through one of its siphons. Food particles are filtered through the pharynx and digestive tract, and waste products are ejected from the body through the other siphon. They are also called “sea grapes” because a collection of them looks like a bunch of grapes. They are also very tolerant of polluted water.
Sea squirts cling to a rock or other object and don’t budge for life. As it filters the water in which it lives, pollutants accumulate in the body. Therefore, an examination of islets taken from a particular beach provides a very reliable picture of the state of pollution and the level of environmental health at that site.
In scientific terms, the creatures are biomarkers of the marine environment. In addition, this group of invertebrates is the evolutionary closest to vertebrates (such as humans) and therefore is a common model system for research.
For the study, the researchers sampled from nine different sites, including ports, bathing beaches and nature reserves. Seven of the sites are spread along the Mediterranean coast, from north to south: Achziv Reserve, Acre Port, Michmoret, Herzliya, Bat Yam, Palmahim National Park and Ashkelon National Park; two are in the Red Sea, the Eilat Marina and the Dolphin Reef. They then examined the amount of micro-plastic particles and used a new and very accurate chemical analysis method developed by the Avisar Center for Water Research to search for the presence of plastic additives that give flexibility to products.
“In all of the sites we examined, we found micro-plastic particles, and in most of the sites, we also found synthetic additives such as phthalates,” said Vered. “It is important to note that there is not always a clear link between the designation of the coast (a seaport, a bathing beach or a national park) and the level of pollution visible to our findings.
Happily, the Dolphin Reef in Eilat excelled by having almost no plastics, but we were sorry to find high levels of plastic additives on beaches where many of us spend time with our children.”
“Our research sounds an alarm for the entire Israeli public,” concluded Shenkar. “Even if many of the pollutants are not visible, the findings show that our beaches are contaminated with micro-plastics and chemicals from plastics. In addition to recycling bottles and packaging, we call on the public, among other things, to reduce the use of plastic products, especially disposable ones.”
Meanwhile, some Israeli companies are doing their part to make Israelis and people around the world aware of the risk of plastic pollution. SodaStream International, a company that produces simple devices for making sparkling water at home rather than buying plastic bottles filled with cola and other sweetened drinks, recently ran a campaign to promote the use of reusable bottles.
Recently purchased by Pepsico, Sodastream noted that more than eight million metric tons of plastic reaches the oceans annually. Company CEO Daniel Birnbaum led the first-known attempt of a commercial company to carry out a physical clean-up of trash from open waters. Birnbaum went to Honduras in South America along with 150 other SodaStream executives, international experts and environmental activists. The company presented a video featuring a group of people and marine animals hurt by floating plastic waste who sang a song advocating the removal of plastics from the seas.