Microplastics have been gaining more and more public attention over the last few years. These small plastic particles have been shown to pervade the marine environment, and have been found to affect the wellbeing – and possibly even the behaviour – of marine species, including coral.
I’ve been working with the topic of microplaslic pollution over the last year, addressing the issue through the embodied interspecies interface that is the Coral Empathy Device since the Pikslo_Deep Dive workshop at Piksel last year.
Last week, Gjino Šutić and I returned to Bergen, Norway, for the next step in our explorations of microplastics in the Norwegian marine environment, with our Sushi Roulette workshop at S.Net. This workshop introduces the problematic of microplastics in fish, uses DIY chemical analysis to explore microplastic ingestion by fish, and facilitates co-design with the participants to come up with new ideas about how art and design can address this problem of plastic use and accumulation. The workshop was produced by Piksel in collaboration with S.Net, KHiB and UIB.
You can see the media coverage in Bergens Tided (paywall and in Norwegian, pdf). I also appeared on NRK Hordaland Radio the first day of the workshop (12th October), which led to quite a few interested visitors dropping by over the next few days. We carried out a public debate about microplastics with panellists from research, government and an NGO, as part of the S.Net conference.
Gjino and I presented new research into DIY chemistry protocols for analysis of microplastics in fish guts – including dissection techniques, reagents for digesting the organic matter and protocols for filtering, weighing and identification of plastics using non-lab based reagents and equipment. We also tested, together with workshop participants, the use of Plumbo – a local drain cleaner – as a reagent for the research.
We’ll be writing up the results in more detail, but preliminary results show that Plumbo is an adequate substitute for NaOH (sodium hydroxide) in the digestion of organic matter, and it allowed us to detect microplastics in the guts of at least one herring (Norwegian: sild).
We were fortunate enough to have among our participants students from KHiB, who were attending a course run by the awesome Zack Denfold and Cathrine Kramer of the Centre for Genomic Gastronomy.
With the participants we put together the Sushi Roulette Afterparty exhibition, which challenged visitors to explore the possibility of ingesting plastic sushi, or sushi that could contain plastic residues. Exhibits included the experimental protocol and its documentation, the chance to envisage mutations in fish, an animation of tyre attrition (the largest contributor to microplastics in Norwegian waters).
Links and further reading
Accumulation: The Material Politics of Plastic (CRESC) 
Microplastics in Norway
Distribution of microplastics in marine environments from Norwegian Env Agency
“The effects of microplastics on marine organisms are typically sub-lethal, such as reduced feeding and increased uptake of certain contaminants (e.g. polychlorinatedbiphenyls). Laboratory exposure to microplastics shows negative impact such as a reduction in the growth of marine worms and changes in gene regulation in fish.”
“The significance of microplastic pollution on the safety of seafood is not known, although it is important to note that the concentrations determined in the farmed mussels and oysters are relatively small. If eating 250 g of blue mussels one will consume 90 particles, and 6 oysters of 100 g per the portion will contain around 50 particles54. Although, based upon the yearly consumption of shellfish in Europe the number increases to 11,000 particles person-1 year-1 54.”
“Even though a large number of fish species have been examined to date, the spatial coverage of such studies is relatively poor with insufficient data to decipher any spatial trends. The number of microplastics found in the digestive system of fish is typically between 1 and 7.2 (Table 6). In the English Channel less dense polymers, such as polystyrene and LDPE (Table 2) were only found in pelagic feeding fish, however, less dense polymers where found in fish that fed in both pelagic and demersal waters. The plastics polymers found in the English channel are known to be used a lot in the fishing industry, which may be a possible source94.” “there is considerable potential for bioaccumulation and trophic transfer of microplastics in food chains, such that higher predators, including human consumers of seafood products, may possibly be exposed to relatively high levels of micro plastics”
Marine microplstic pollution in Norway
Impact of Microplastics
Plastic poisons in the food chain
Plastic wastes are not only physically harmful. They may be chemically harmful either because they are inherently toxic, or because they absorb other pollutants that are toxic. As pointed out in a recent review , microplastics can be ingested by suspension- filter- and deposit- feeders, detritivores and planktivores, all at the bottom of the food web. They may accumulate within the organisms, resulting in both physical and chemical damage. They can cause abrasions and blockages. And toxicity could arise from contaminants leaching from the microplastics such as monomers and plastic additives that are carcinogenic and/or endocrine disrupting. Moreover, microplastics can concentrate hydrophobic persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that have a greater affinity for the hydrophobic surface of plastics compared to seawater. On account of their large surface area to volume ratio, microplastics can become heavily contaminated, at up to 6 orders of magnitude greater than ambient seawater in the case of waterborne POPs [7, 8].
Ingested plastic transfers hazardous chemicals to fish and induces hepatic stress
Plastic debris litters aquatic habitats globally, the majority of which is microscopic (< 1 mm), and is ingested by a large range of species. Risks associated with such small fragments come from the material itself and from chemical pollutants that sorb to it from surrounding water. Hazards associated with the complex mixture of plastic and accumulated pollutants are largely unknown. Here, we show that fish, exposed to a mixture of polyethylene with chemical pollutants sorbed from the marine environment, bioaccumulate these chemical pollutants and suffer liver toxicity and pathology. Fish fed virgin polyethylene fragments also show signs of stress, although less severe than fish fed marine polyethylene fragments. We provide baseline information regarding the bioaccumulation of chemicals and associated health effects from plastic ingestion in fish and demonstrate that future assessments should consider the complex mixture of the plastic material and their associated chemical pollutants.
Environmentally relevant concentrations of microplastic particles influence larval fish ecology
The widespread occurrence and accumulation of plastic waste in the environment have become a growing global concern over the past decade. Although some marine organisms have been shown to ingest plastic, few studies have investigated the ecological effects of plastic waste on animals. Here we show that exposure to environmentally relevant concentrations of microplastic polystyrene particles (90 micrometers) inhibits hatching, decreases growth rates, and alters feeding preferences and innate behaviors of European perch (Perca fluviatilis) larvae. Furthermore, individuals exposed to microplastics do not respond to olfactory threat cues, which greatly increases predator-induced mortality rates. Our results demonstrate that microplastic particles operate both chemically and physically on larval fish performance and development.
Microplastic ingestion by scleractinian corals
We report for the first time the ingestion of microplastics by scleractinian corals, and the presence of microplastics in coral reef waters adjacent to inshore reefs on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GRE, 18°31′S 146°23′E). Analysis of samples from sub-surface plankton tows conducted in close proximity to inshore reefs on the central GBR revealed microplastics, similar to those used in marine paints and fishing floats, were present in low concentrations at all water sampling locations. Experimental feeding trials revealed that corals mistake microplastics for prey and can consume up to ~50 μg plastic cm−2 h−1, rates similar to their consumption of plankton and Artemia nauplii in experimental feeding assays. Ingested microplastics were found wrapped in mesenterial tissue within the coral gut cavity, suggesting that ingestion of high concentrations of microplastic debris could potentially impair the health of corals.
Novel sources of Microplastics
Hiking clothes create microplastic pollution in Svalbard
“We are primarily filamentous plastic particles of different colors and types.These findings show that households in Svalbard in the Arctic contributes to the discharge of plastic waste, and perhaps to a greater extent than we like to think about, says oceanographer Jan H. Sundet IMR.”
Art, architecture, design and advocacy about plastic pollution
Floating park that traps plastic: Really interesting and innovative intervention in Rotterdam: http://recycledpark.com/news.html – a floating park that traps plastic waste in the river
Art projects: http://time.com/4358434/world-oceans-day-art-marine-plastic/ particularly Max Liboion and Judith Selby Lang and Richard Lang, Tuula Närhinen, Nick Humphrey
iGem Plastic Republic http://2012.igem.org/Team:University_College_London
Plastic recycled into construction materials – this is of course a little problematic in terms of micro plastics and release of toxics as the plastic will still degrade
– and the more attractive http://inhabitat.com/lego-like-building-blocks-of-recycled-plastic-allow-colombians-to-build-their-own-homes/
– wood-plastic composite for building http://inhabitat.com/aussie-surfboard-designer-makes-recycled-prefab-cyclone-resistant-homes/
The Adidas recycled plastic shoe is interesting in terms of large brand assimilation of an idea http://www.theverge.com/2016/6/8/11881670/adidas-3d-printed-sneaker-competition