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Study Reveals Plastics Toxic Impact on Reefs

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A recent study of the impact of plastic waste on the health of coral reefs suggests that it has a devastating impact on their health. A healthy reef has a four per cent chance of developing a disease - one polluted with plastic waste has an 89 per cent chance.

The research looked at 150 reefs across the Asia-Pacific region covering Australia, Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar and found that more than 11.1 billion plastic items are currently entangled on coral across the region.

And if the current rate of dumping more than 12 million tonnes of plastic waste in our oceans each year continues, it is estimated that the amount entangled in the region’s reefs will increase by 40 per cent.

The research team analysed 125,000 reef-building corals for tissue loss and lesions and, where the reef was significantly polluted with plastic, they found a dramatic increase in the amount of disease.

‘Plastic debris acts like a marine motorhome for microbes,’ said the study’s lead author, Joleah Lamb, a postdoctoral research fellow at Cornell, who began collecting this data as a doctoral candidate at James Cook University.

He added: ‘Plastic items—commonly made of polypropylene, such as bottle caps and toothbrushes—have been shown to become heavily inhabited by bacteria. This is associated with the globally devastating group of coral diseases known as white syndromes.’

The study also revealed that in areas such as South Australia and Tasmania which have banned the use of plastic bags and have strong plastic waste disposal strategies, there is a significant drop in coral disease levels.

‘On the positive side, this study shows that properly managing plastic waste reduces the levels we are finding on nearby coral reefs, therefore improving plastic waste infrastructure in developing countries should be a key priority worldwide,’ said Joleah.

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