SAN DIEGO — Alex Ferron is constantly amazed by nature’s beauty; a big part of her life is finding ways to keep it beautiful.

What You Need To Know

  • A new studys shows pathogens can hitch a ride on plastic to reach the sea
  • Microplastics are tiny plastic particles smaller than 5 millimeters, no bigger than a grain of rice
  • Microplastics can carry land-based parasites to the ocean, affecting wildlife and human health
  • The pathogens studied — Toxoplasma gondii, Cryptosporidium (Crypto) and Giardia — can infect both humans and animals

Ferron works at Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit that strives to protect and preserve the world’s oceans and beaches.

She said one of their biggest threats is plastic and microplastics. Microplastics are tiny plastic particles, no bigger than a grain of rice.

“The thing about plastic is that it’s light, and it travels,” Ferron said. “It doesn’t need our human feet to get moving, it just catches the litter stream, and it goes.”

A new study by UC Davis is the first of its kind to connect microplastics in the ocean with land-based pathogens. It found that microplastics can make it easier for disease-causing pathogens to concentrate in plastic-contaminated areas of the ocean. 

The pathogens studied — Toxoplasma gondii, Cryptosporidium, or Crypto and Giardia — can infect both humans and animals. They are recognized by The World Health Organization as underestimated causes of illness from shellfish consumption and are found throughout the ocean.

“It’s easy for people to dismiss plastic problems as something that doesn’t matter for them, like, ‘I’m not a turtle in the ocean; I won’t choke on this thing,’” said corresponding author Karen Shapiro, an infectious disease expert and associate professor in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “But once you start talking about disease and health, there’s more power to implement change. Microplastics can actually move germs around, and these germs end up in our water and our food.”

Microplastics have contaminated waters as remote as Antarctica. The study’s findings show that, by hitchhiking on microplastics, pathogens can disperse throughout the ocean, reaching places a land parasite would normally never be found.

For the study, the authors conducted laboratory experiments to test whether the selected pathogens can associate with plastics in seawater. They used two different types of microplastics: polyethylene microbeads and polyester microfibers.

Microbeads are often found in cosmetics, such as exfoliants and cleansers, while microfibers are in clothing and fishing nets. The scientists found that more parasites adhered to microfibers than to microbeads, though both types of plastic can carry land pathogens.

The wispy particles of microfibers are common in California’s waters and have been found in shellfish.

Co-author Chelsea Rochman, a plastic-pollution expert and assistant professor of ecology at the University of Toronto, said there are several ways humans can help reduce the impacts of microplastics in the ocean. She notes microfibers are commonly shed in washing machines and can reach waterways via wastewater systems.

“This work demonstrates the importance of preventing sources of microplastics to our oceans,” Rochman said. “Mitigation strategies include filters on washing machines, filters on dryers, bioretention cells or other technologies to treat stormwater, and best management practices to prevent microplastic release from plastic industries and construction sites.”

Gia Giambalvo is a barista and manager for James Coffee Company who believes change can start with how you drink your morning cup of coffee. You won’t find a single paper or plastic cup at James Coffee; every drink is served to customers in a reusable glass jar with a lid.

“They pay a little deposit. It’s $1.50 the first time,” Giambalvo said. “They bring it back each time and we just swap out the glass.” 
More than 50 billion coffee cups are tossed out every year in the U.S. alone. Before Giambalvo helped create the glass jar program, James Coffee was wasting about 100,000 cups a year. The company knew they needed to be part of a sustainable solution, rather than a plastic problem.

“Even if you don’t come back, it’s just a glass jar. You can use it for anything,” Giambalvo said. “As long as it has a home, and it’s being repurposed, we’re happy.”

She hopes their model will eventually have a global impact, especially as science continues to prove how bad plastic is for our environment and our health.

“Reframing our relationship to things that are disposable,” Giambalvo said. “And are we OK with throwing everything away, or can we start to think about reusing other parts of our habits?”

Ferron believes research like the UC Davis study is instrumental in sparking real change.

“It’s really important to be able to prove like, ‘Hey this is real,’” she said. “This isn’t just tree huggers going, ‘Aw there’s plastic on this plant and I love looking at this plant,’ like this is toxic.”