Billions of pieces of plastic waste are choking our coral reefs

According to recent research, coral reefs in Indonesia, Australia, Myanmar and Thailand are buried under about 11.1 billion pieces of plastic waste.

The study looked at 124,000 individual corals over a three-year period, and found that a whopping one-third of these are heavily polluted in plastic.

The pollution is sickening the coral reefs, with reefs near Indonesia flooded with the most amount of plastic, and Australian reefs with the least.

Co-author of the study Bette Willis says that moderating the risks of disease outbreak in the ocean is not only vital to ecosystem, but to humans too.

“Bleaching events are projected to increase in frequency and severity as ocean temperatures rise,” she said.

“There’s more than 275 million people relying upon coral reefs for food, coastal protection, tourism income, and cultural significance.”

When coral wasn’t in contact with plastic, the chance of disease was only 4%, however when it was, the chance drastically increased to 89%.

First author Joleah Lamb of Cornell University says the amount of plastic pollution and disease is predicted to increase in the future.

“We estimate there are 11.1 billion plastic items on coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific and forecast this to increase by 40% within seven years. That equates to an estimated 15.7 billion plastic items on coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific by 2025.”

Coral wrapped in plastic. Photo by Lalita Putchim

How does plastic cause coral disease?

Previous research findings show that corals get stressed out by plastic debris. They create a light and oxygen deficiency, which lets pathogens attack the coral. It depends on the type of coral, as Lamb et al. found, corals that were most structurally complex usually had eight times more plastic.

“We don’t know the exact mechanisms, but plastics make ideal vessels for colonizing microscopic organisms that could trigger disease if they come into contact with corals,” Dr Lamb said.

“For example, plastic items such as those commonly made of polypropylene, like bottle caps and toothbrushes, have been shown to become heavily inhabited by bacteria that are associated with a globally devastating group of coral diseases known as white syndromes.”



A plastic bottle wedged in the coral reef. Photo by Kathryn Berry

What can we do?

Keep our beaches clean

The cleaner our beaches are, the cleaner our water is. Next time you head to the beach, #takethreeforthesea, or better yet, pick up as much rubbish as you can find. Grab a group of friends, visit a few beautiful beaches and make a day out of it.

Only flush what really needs to be flushed

At the tap of a finger, the magical seat in our bathroom gets rid of any waste we don’t want, and it’s out of sight and out of mind. But once it’s flushed, it ends up in our sewerage system, is treated, and is sent back out into our creeks, rivers and oceans. Stop flushing those pad wrappers, condoms and cotton buds!

Get talking

Once we start chatting about the little differences we can make in our lives, like reducing our overall plastic consumption, the bigger the chance is that we will actually make those changes. Next time you’re at the supermarket with a friend or family member, mention how bad plastic is for our earth.  Or maybe have a movie night and watch a documentary like Blue. It’s easy to float by and use what’s easy, but as soon as you see the negative impact, you can’t really un-see it.

As much as 95% of the ocean floor is still undiscovered. Let’s not let the beautiful parts that we can see go to waste.