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‘Plastitar’ Is the Unholy Spawn of Oil Spills and Microplastics

On the east coast of Tenerife, the biggest of the Canary Islands, stretches Playa Grande, with its clear waters and fine sand. Clamber up one of its outcrops, though, and you may notice something amiss: Much of this rock is darker, squishier, and hotter than the rest, and dotted with colorful sprinkles. Sounds cheerful, yes, but it’s actually a diabolical new kind of pollution.

The scientists who just discovered the horror are calling it “plastitar.” It's tar from oil spills mixed with the multicolored microplastics that are spewing totally unchecked into the world’s oceans . (Microplastics are bits of plastic waste less than 5 millimeters long.)

These scientists scrutinized rock on Playa Grande, and more than half of it was covered in this noxious substance. They also found the novel pollutant on the nearby El Hierro and Lanzarote islands. “We saw that the tar was completely full of mainly plastics,” says Javier Hernández-Borges, an analytical chemist at the University of La Laguna and coauthor of a new paper in the journal Science of the Total Environment. “We came across something new and something that is probably happening in many places around the world, not exclusively in the Canary Islands.”

Photograph: Domínguez-Hernández, et al

Here’s a good look at a rocky outcrop covered in plastitar. On the bottom left you can see rope, probably from fishing gear, which these days is made largely of plastic. In the bottom right photo are what look like lentils but are in fact “nurdles.” These are the raw materials used to make plastic products, pellets that are meant to be melted down into bottles or bags. But when nurdles are shipped around the world, they regularly spill in astonishing numbers. According to one estimate, some 500 million pounds of the stuff enter the oceans every year.

In the following image, the researchers also identified many kinds of other microplastics embedded in the tar—fragments and fibers in various colors. For example, anytime you wash a load of synthetic clothing like polyester or nylon, millions of fibers break off and flush out to sea in wastewater. Fragments, on the other hand, likely come from bigger plastic objects floating around the open ocean, breaking into ever smaller pieces. “Most of the plastic they're looking at is degraded macroplastic, not nurdles,” says Deonie Allen, a microplastics scientist at the University of Strathclyde, who wasn’t involved in the research. “So it is well and truly our rubbish that's doing this.”

Photograph: Domínguez-Hernández, et al

It’s important to note that Hernández-Borges and his colleagues were looking for particles as small as 1 millimeter, which means many, many smaller bits evaded detection. As microplastics science has progressed, researchers have started to test for nanoplastics—particles smaller than a millionth of a meter. A load of laundry can release trillions of these nanoplastics into the sea.