One of humanity and natures worst collaborations was recently discovered here in Madeira. Apart from the more obvious forms of plastic debris littering our oceans, which we also encounter on pretty much every tour, there are the more dangerous and detrimental microscopic pieces of plastic, collectively known as microplastic. The fact that these practically invisible particles are so tiny makes them harder to measure and even harder to remove from our oceans. Microplastic easily enters the food web and accumulates in top consumers, finally ending in the bodies of its creators, human beings. Recently, at a time where we are still beginning to understand what consequences micro plastic may have for our oceans, a new discovery was made showing how this man-made force of destruction has infiltrated the natural systems of our planet.
In 2016, Ignacio Gestoso, a marine ecologist at the Marine and environmental research centre in Madeira (MARE), was conducting a routine sampling of intertidal communities when he suddenly discovered a light-blue crusting growth on the rocks. Gestoso first assumed it was a one-time anomaly, but repeated sightings and changing colours of the growth prompted him to sample this chimeric growth. The sampling showed that the blue crust was in fact made of polyethylene, the most widely used form of plastic. The scientists at the local institute assume the crust probably originated from plastic waste being crashed against the rocky shore by strong waves and adhering to the rocks in the same way algae or lichens do.
By doing so microplastic has probably found a new way into marine and coastal food webs. The plasticrust phenomenon threatens a variety of coastal creatures that graze on the rocks along the intertidalzone, such as the Common periwinkle (Littorina striata). This absurd form of pollution is affecting no less than 10% of Madeira’s intertidal rocky coastline zone and scientists are not excluding the possibility that this type of pollution may be occurring on a global level.
The fact that humanity has created a monster become more and more evident the more we understand how complex plastic pollution really is. We should definitely brace ourselves for more surprises and in the meantime make an effort to live sustainably and clean up as much trash as we can.
By Paula Thake
PS: Picture by Ignacio Gestoso