ANSTO scientists have been working with universities and researchers to investigate the lifecycle of plastic and how it can enter the food chain and impact the marine environment. Research shows that even when plastic breaks down and disappears from sight it remains in the environment. Even though we can’t see the plastic, it is still there, and it can be ingested by aquatic animals and enter the food chain.
ANSTO scientists have used ground-breaking nuclear research techniques to measure elemental composition of plastics at the atomic level as they degrade in the environment. Working with conservation scientist Dr Jennifer Lavers (Monash University and University of Tasmania), ANSTO’s Professor Richard Banati’ team used highly sensitive and sophisticated nuclear instruments to analyse pieces of plastic taken from the stomachs of Flesh-footed Shearwater seabirds as well as feathers from the same birds.
Dr Lavers’ study of seabirds found, that chicks can have substantial amounts of plastics in their stomachs, sometimes almost 10% of their body weight. The chicks are fed by their parents with coloured plastics that they have mistakenly collected as prey.
Scientists are now studying whether the trace elements typically present in the plastics collected from the stomachs of the birds are also present in their feathers. This will help in estimating the distribution and the potential effects of degrading plastics throughout the food web in which both birds and humans occupy a top predator position.
Learn more about ANSTO's plastics research.