Toxic ‘plastic pebbles’ created from discarded bottles and packaging are washing up on beaches for the first time

  • They are created from melted plastic, which combines with sand and seaweed
  • After being rolled by waves they become hard to distinguish from real pebbles
  • Many of the pebbles are thought to originate from plastic bottles, scientists say 
  • The Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition says they could get into the food chain if they get broken down
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Beaches around the world are becoming littered with ‘plastic pebbles’.

They are created from melted plastic, which combines with sand, shingle and seaweed to form small balls.

After being rolled around on the beach by waves they become hard to distinguish from the real pebbles.

However, they pose a real threat to the oceans, wildlife and, potentially, human health.


Beaches around the world are becoming littered with ‘plastic pebbles’. They are created from melted plastic, which combines with sand, shingle and seaweed to form small balls. After being rolled around on the beach by waves they become hard to distinguish from real pebbles

The Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition (CPPC) says they could get into the food chain if they get broken down.

Many of the pebbles are thought to originate from plastic bottles and other items melting after being thrown on to beach bonfires or barbecues.

Most plastic pebbles can be identified because they float.

The CPCC says it has seen reports of hundreds of plastic pebbles being found in Cornwall, Devon, Pembrokeshire, Orkney, Spain, Portugal and Hawaii.

Delia Webb, of the CPCC, said: ‘The danger is that they will become shingle-size and be ingested into the food chain, so they need to be removed like any plastic would be.

‘But if people are aware of them we should find more. Cornwall gets hit because of currents coming across the Atlantic and if you are a seasoned beachcomber your eyes get attuned to spotting them.’


Plastic pebbles can be identified because they float. The Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition (CPPC) says they could get into the food chain if they get broken down

She added: ‘People need to be aware that it is one thing burning wood on a beach fire but burning plastics with all the toxic fumes that they give off is a no-no.’

The plastic pebbles, technically known as plastiglomerate, were first discovered in 2006 by Charles Moore, a sea captain and oceanographer, while surveying plastic washed up on Kamilo Beach, a remote, polluted stretch of sand in Hawaii.

Subsequently, Dr Patricia Corcoran, an earth scientist at Western University in Ontario, Canada, collected samples of the plastic rocks from 21 sites in Hawaii.

They collected 205 pieces, ranging from the size of a peach stone to the diameter of a large pizza.


Many of the pebbles are thought to originate from plastic bottles and other items melting after being thrown on to beach bonfires or barbecues

The evidence from the British coast is that ‘plastic pebbles’ are now a global threat.

Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester, said: ‘Plastics and plastiglomerates might well survive as future fossils.

‘If they are buried within the strata, I don’t see why they can’t persist in some form for millions of years.’

WHAT CAN MICROPLASTICS DO TO THE HUMAN BODY IF THEY END UP IN OUR FOOD SUPPLY?

According to an article published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, our understanding of the potential human health effects from exposure to microplastics ‘constitutes major knowledge gaps.’ 

Humans can be exposed to plastic particles via consumption of seafood and terrestrial food products, drinking water and via the air. 

However, the level of human exposure, chronic toxic effect concentrations and underlying mechanisms by which microplastics elicit effects are still not well understood enough in order to make a full assessment of the risks to humans.

According to Rachel Adams, a senior lecturer in Biomedical Science at Cardiff Metropolitan University, ingesting microplastics could cause a number of potentially harmful effects, such as: 

  • Inflammation: when inflammation occurs, the body’s white blood cells and the substances they produce protect us from infection. This normally protective immune system can cause damage to tissues. 
  • An immune response to anything recognised as ‘foreign’ to the body: immune responses such as these can cause damage to the body. 
  • Becoming carriers for other toxins that enter the body: microplastics generally repel water and will bind to toxins that don’t dissolve, so microplastics can bind to compounds containing toxic metals such as mercury, and organic pollutants such as some pesticides and chemicals called dioxins, which are known to causes cancer, as well as reproductive and developmental problems. If these microplastics enter the body, toxins can accumulate in fatty tissues. 

 

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