Get Regular Updates!
|Plastic trash: the new threat for coral reefs worldwide



Jeff Tyson

Plastic trash: the new threat for coral reefs worldwide

Plastic trash: the new threat for coral reefs worldwide

Coral reefs are not getting a break. On top of climate change and bleaching, now tonnes of plastic trash are making them sick.

Plastic trash: the new threat for coral reefs worldwide

Every year, as much as 12.7 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the ocean. But so far, little is known about how this rubbish is affecting the health of marine organisms.

Recently, an international study has an answer, and it’s bad—coral reefs are getting sick from this plastic waste.

The study focused on the Asia-Pacific region, where more than half of the world’s corals reside, including our own Great Barrier Reef.

Plastic everywhere

The study analysed more than 150 reefs across the Asia-Pacific region, including Indonesia, Australia, Myanmar and Thailand. Based on the researchers’ estimates, more than 11.1 billion plastic items are currently entangled on coral reefs.

View Larger
Image|Dr Kathryn Berry
Village in Myanmar

This figure could increase by 40% by 2025 if things don’t change.

The problem with this plastic waste is that it attracts unwanted microbes. These microbes greatly increase the chance corals will develop diseases.

The problem with plastic

Coral reefs are formed by tiny animals that live in association with microscopic algae called zooxanthellae. These delicate relationships can be affected by different factors. Both increasing ocean temperatures and pollution are known culprits.

But it turns out that the bacteria found in plastic waste also disturbs this delicate relationship.

After analysing nearly 125,000 reef-building corals for tissue loss and disease lesions, the team had a good idea of the problem.

Across the study region, researchers found that the presence of plastic rubbish increased the odds of corals getting sick—by a lot.

Coral reefs from places contaminated with plastic had an 89% chance of developing a disease. In plastic-free regions, these odds were just 4%!

View Larger
Image|Dr Joleah Lamb
Manufactured material is snagged on coral affected by white syndrome coral 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.

“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.”

It’s rubbish – but you can help

Every bit of plastic now floating in the ocean comes from us, humans, so it is up to us to change this nefarious situation. “The take-home message for individuals is to be more considered about the amount of single-use plastics you are using and think about where your plastic goes. These little things do matter,” says Joleah.

In this sense, WA is heading up the right way, with current plans for banning plastic bags by mid-2018. The initiative is backed by major retailers like Coles and Woolworths, who last year announced their plans to phase out plastic bags from their shops.

South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory have already banned the use of plastic bags.

With the ban of plastic bags under their belt, environmental activists are now seeking to ban the use of plastic straws, another major source of pollution. But plastic bags and straws are just two items on a long list of plastic we use every day and throw away as rubbish.

“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,” says Joleah.

Particle Puns


Creative Commons Logo

Republishing our content

We want our stories to be shared and seen by as many people as possible.

Therefore, unless it says otherwise, copyright on the stories on Particle belongs to Scitech and they are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

This allows you to republish our articles online or in print for free. You just need to credit us and link to us, and you can’t edit our material or sell it separately.

Using the ‘republish’ button on our website is the easiest way to meet our guidelines.


You cannot edit the article.

When republishing, you have to credit our authors, ideally in the byline. You have to credit Particle with a link back to the original publication on Particle.

If you’re republishing online, you must use our pageview counter, link to us and include links from our story. Our page view counter is a small pixel-ping (invisible to the eye) that allows us to know when our content is republished. It’s a condition of our guidelines that you include our counter. If you use the ‘republish’ then you’ll capture our page counter.

If you’re republishing in print, please email us to let us so we know about it (we get very proud to see our work republished) and you must include the Particle logo next to the credits. Download logo here.

If you wish to republish all our stories, please contact us directly to discuss this opportunity.


Most of the images used on Particle are copyright of the photographer who made them.

It is your responsibility to confirm that you’re licensed to republish images in our articles.


All Particle videos can be accessed through YouTube under the Standard YouTube Licence.

The Standard YouTube licence

  1. This licence is ‘All Rights Reserved’, granting provisions for YouTube to display the content, and YouTube’s visitors to stream the content. This means that the content may be streamed from YouTube but specifically forbids downloading, adaptation, and redistribution, except where otherwise licensed. When uploading your content to YouTube it will automatically use the Standard YouTube licence. You can check this by clicking on Advanced Settings and looking at the dropdown box ‘License and rights ownership’.
  2. When a user is uploading a video he has license options that he can choose from. The first option is “standard YouTube License” which means that you grant the broadcasting rights to YouTube. This essentially means that your video can only be accessed from YouTube for watching purpose and cannot be reproduced or distributed in any other form without your consent.


For more information about using our content, email us:

Copy this HTML into your CMS
Press Ctrl+C to copy

We've got chemistry. Want something physical?