Plastic waste on the beaches is not just an aesthetic problem. Small fragments of plastics have a significant effect on the temperature of the sand on the beaches. During the day the arms are warmer and at night colder. A new study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials shows that these changes in beach temperatures pose a problem for heat-sensitive animals such as crabs, mussels, snails, coastal birds and sea turtles.

Plastics destroy tropical paradises

Henderson Island and the Cocos Islands are among the places that plastic waste has changed beyond recognition. Experts estimate that there are about 18 million tons of plastics on Henderson Island. Plastic waste on the beaches kills animals in many ways. Many animals consume plastics, small fragments can be confused with ordinary food. They then get stuck in their bodies or release dangerous chemicals into their bodies. Many animals get stuck in plastic objects, such as nets, rings, packaging and cups. When a small animal swallows plastic, it enters other animals through the food chain, including humans, who consume marine animals with microplastics in the body.

Credit: Jennifer Lavers


Plastics change the temperature of the beach

Most studies to date have focused on how plastics physically harm animals and the environment. Jennifer Lavers, a marine ecotoxicologist at the University of Tasmania in Australia, started to measure beach temperatures.

“Up until this point, so much of the literature focused on charismatic species or the type or source of plastic,” Lavers writes. “Year after year, I’d return to some of the most far-flung corners of our planet and the plastic I witnessed 12, 24 months ago would still be sitting there (except perhaps even more!). I knew it had to be having some kind of effect, but there was no data.

Credit: Jennifer Lavers

Lavers and his colleagues chose an area on the beach where they counted a number of plastic pieces. Subsequently, they installed temperature sensors in different depths of sand on the site. The problem was that they could not find a suitable control point, because plastic waste was present everywhere. In the end, the place where the pollution was the least was chosen as the control station. The area was monitored for 3 months.

“In the shallow sands with moderate levels of plastic, daily maximum temperatures were around 2.5 degrees C warmer than low- and high-plastic sites, and their daily minimum temperatures were about 1.5 degrees cooler.”

Even a small change has catastrophic consequences

Higher temperatures, even in deep sand, can be caused by the plastic having insulating effects. Although a change of a few degrees Celsius may seem small, it has a significant effect on life around you. The temperature in the tropics is very stable and when they change, the animals may move elsewhere or it will affect their whole organism.

Cold-blooded beach dwellers, like sea turtles, are particularly at risk. “Reptiles are ectotherms — they’re cold-blooded — and they’re intrinsically tied to the thermal characteristics of their environment,” says Leo Clarke, a marine ecologist at Bangor University who was not involved in the study. “So temperature influences lots of parts of their life cycle, and reproduction in particular.”

Changing temperatures can affect the sex of the young and also their chances of survival. Turtles usually bury their eggs deep so that they are not affected by temperature, but plastics affect the temperature even in deep sand. Plastics affect thousands of animal species and disrupt the entire ecosystem, which is slowly dying. The whole world is already very affected by the huge production of plastic waste and the only solution is to prevent further production of plastic waste. Subsequently, perhaps nature will heal.


Credit: Jennifer Lavers, Wikimedia