Yummy! New research reveals it's the taste of plastic not the look that drives corals to eat it

Jack Versiani Holt By: Jack Versiani Holt
Date posted: 26 October 2017

Scientists have long known that marine animals mistakenly eat plastic debris because the tiny bits of floating plastic might look like prey. But the eating may not be triggered by the look – more by the taste. According to this new study from Duke University in North Carolina - plastic just plain tastes good.

© Saeed Rashid

“Corals in our experiments ate all types of plastics but preferred unfouled microplastics by a threefold difference over microplastics covered in bacteria,” said Austin S. Allen, a PhD student at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “This suggests the plastic itself contains something that makes it tasty.”

“When plastic comes from the factory, it has hundreds of chemical additives on it. Any one of these chemicals or a combination of them could be acting as a stimulant that makes plastic appealing to corals,” said Alexander C. Seymour, a geographic information systems analyst at Duke’s Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Center, who co-led the study with Allen.

Because plastic is largely indigestible, it can lead to intestinal blockages, create a false sense of fullness or reduce energy reserves in animals that consume it. “About eight percent of the plastic that coral polyps in our study ingested was still stuck in their guts after 24 hours,” said Allen.

Further research will be needed to identify the specific additives that make the plastic so tasty to corals and determine if the same chemicals act as feeding stimulants to other marine species.

The researchers hope their findings will encourage scientists to explore the role taste plays in determining why marine organisms ingest microplastics.

“Ultimately, the hope is that if we can manufacture plastic so it unintentionally tastes good to these animals, we might also be able to manufacture it so it intentionally tastes bad,” Seymour said. “That could significantly help reduce the threat these microplastics pose.”

Allen and Seymour’s peer-reviewed study can be found here.

Actions you can take

  1. Download the Great British Beach Clean Report 2019
  2. Find out more about nurdles
  3. Join the Plastic Challenge
  4. Join a beach clean
  5. Help stop the plastic tide
  6. NGO microbead briefing paper
  7. Read our microbead ban position statement
  8. Learn about Deposit Return Systems

Did you know?…

Since the carrier bag charge came in across the UK, the Great British Beach Clean has recorded almost 50% fewer bags on beaches

Over time, one plastic bottle bobbing along in the ocean can break down in to hundreds of tiny plastic pieces

It’s estimated that one rubbish truck load of plastic litter enters the ocean every minute