In 2016, garbage and fast-food have become two of humanity's biggest exports. According to National Geographic, there's more than 5.2 trillion pieces of trash currently floating around in the world's oceans, and Americans alone spend roughly $100 billion dollars on fast-food each year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a new study claims that fish have become as addicted to eating plastic as teenagers are addicted to shoveling burgers and fries in their faces.
According to a report published in the Swedish academic journal Science recently, young perch fish have acquired such a taste for microplastics—the smallest particles of plastic that appear in cosmetics and other consumer products—that they've stopped eating plankton, their regular, natural diet.
"It seems to be a chemical or physical cue that the plastic has, that triggers a feeding response in fish," Dr. Oona Lonnstedt, one of the researchers on the study from Uppsala University, told the BBC. "They are basically fooled into thinking it's a high-energy resource that they need to eat a lot of. I think of it as unhealthy fast food for teenagers, and they are just stuffing themselves."
Just as cheap, processed food is often blamed for America's obesity epidemic, this new diet isn't without consequences for young fish. The researchers found that fish with a plastic addiction were smaller, slower, and more susceptible to predators. While the U.S. has banned plastics that use micro-beads—often used in cosmetics—but so far the products remain legal in Europe.
"It's body care products, it's not just toothpaste and scrubbers; some mascara and some lipsticks have plastic in them too," Lonnstedt said. "It's a silent threat that we haven't really thought about before. We need to ban the products that have micro-beads in them."