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Plastic in the Food Chain – How Microplastics Entered The Food You Eat

Plastic In The Food Chain – How Microplastics Entered The Food You Eat

How does plastic get into the food chain and how dangerous is it for us humans? If you're looking for clear answers to these questions, you've absolutely come to the right place.

It is light, flexible, heat-resistant and inexpensive - Plastic has many advantages! Unfortunately, however, the high demand for plastic has also ensured that its components are now everywhere - including in the sea and not least in our food. This is because marine animals in particular eat smaller plastic particles and pass on the toxins via the food chain. This is why, for example, oysters, shrimps, squid, crabs, mussels and sardines have been found to contain plastic particles. Detect plastic residues ₁ Is that dangerous?

In this article, I would like to give you everything you need to know about plastic in the food chain and the so-called bioaccumulation of toxins. From the definition, causes, consequences and health risks to the solution to the problem. Let's go!

You can find a brief overview here in advance:

  1. Definition
  2. Causes
  3. Follow
  4. What to do?
  5. Closing words

Definition: What is meant by bioaccumulation and biomagnification?

The processes of Bioaccumulation or the Biomagnification are unfortunately not visible and therefore all the more difficult to understand. I would therefore like to start by briefly explaining both terms to give you a better feel for the invisible danger posed by plastic in the food cycle.


Bioaccumulation describes the Absorption or accumulation of substances (such as Plasticizercolorants, flame retardants, pesticides or heavy metals) by a living organism from its environment. It can damage the absorbing organism and may even lead to death in the short or long term.

While marine animals use substances such as Microplastics from the water via the skin, gills or food, we land dwellers consume these pollutants mainly from the water. about our meals and drinking water.


Biomagnification refers to the Transfer of ingested substances via the food chain and thus the continuation of bioaccumulation. If we eat a fish that has already eaten or accumulated plastic, these plastic particles are also passed on to us humans.

In this way, toxins such as plastic can make their way through many creatures in a food chain until they reach the top. The higher a creature is in the food chain, the more pollutants, toxins and their degradation products end up in the organism. The final links in the food chain are therefore particularly at risk.

Causes: How does plastic get into the food chain?

Plastic enters the food chain through many pathways
Source: M. Lenz/GEOMAR | Graphic: BY 4.0

The fundamental cause of Plastic in the food chain is that Plastic not biodegradable and that larger plastic products only decompose into smaller microplastics over many decades or even centuries. The smaller the plastic particles are, the more likely they are to be eaten by animals (especially marine animals), which absorb the pollutants and are on the menu not only of animal predators, but also of many humans.

How the Microplastics into the sea has arrived? There are many different reasons for this. Here I present them to you and divide them into two categories for a better overview.

Primary microplastics

Primary microplastics are small plastic pellets or tiny plastic fibers. It is, so to speak, the smallest, most original form of plastic and enters the oceans as follows:

  • Microplastics from synthetic clothing in the washing machine. (via drain)
  • Plastic components in cosmetics end up in bodies of water via runoff.
  • Disposal of pollutants from industry into rivers or the sea.
  • Loss of cargo with plastic pellets in shipping.
  • Input from the cleaning of ships.

Secondary microplastics

Secondary microplastics are small plastic particles that accumulate over the decades due to sun, wind, friction and waves. from larger Plastic products in the environment decomposes have. These are the causes:

  • Littering ("dumping" of plastic waste) by people near bodies of water.
  • Decomposition of old fishing nets and other human plastic waste.
  • Plastic waste entering through unsecured landfills or inadequate local waste disposal.
  • Secondary microplastics are also produced by the abrasion of car tires, shoe soles or road markings and can enter the sea via rivers.

What are the consequences of plastic in the food chain?

Consequences of the bioaccumulation of toxins and plastic in the food chain.

Of course, not every plastic particle that a living organism has ingested through food remains in the food chain. Some organisms simply excrete the plastic again. However, others react to the plasticizers, flame retardants and other components of the plastic.

Logically, it becomes problematic, as soon as the toxin has entered the body cells of a living organism. I would like to explain some of the major consequences that this has for animals and us humans.

Consequences for animals

  • Disruption of growth and reproductionSome chemicals in plastic (e.g. phthalates and bisphenol A) can act as endocrine disruptors and impair the reproductive capacity of animals.₂
  • Health problemsToxic substances in plastic accumulate in the tissue of animals and can lead to mechanical disorders, serious inflammation and other health problems - including death.
  • Species extinction: Of course, pollutants such as microplastics in the food chain also exacerbate environmental problems such as the species extinction and thus exert an influence on biodiversity. Also the man-made Overfishing the oceans is accelerated by the plastic particles.

Consequences for us humans

The impact of microplastics in seafood, fish, sea salt and even mineral water (e.g. as residue from plastic bottles) on our own health is not yet known. still largely unexplored.

However, the damage or changes observed in the metabolism of the animals studied, which also affect their Life expectancy and reproduction have had an impact₃. The link between bisphenol A (BPA) or phthalates and health problems such as Cancer, hormonal disorders and developmental problemsis a cause for concern.₄

Solution: What to do about plastic in the food chain?

What to do about plastic in the food chain?

Once the microplastic has entered an organism in the food cycle, it is already too late. Sooner or later, it will end up on someone's plate. Prevention is therefore particularly important in order to Stop plastic in the food chain.

In the fight against plastic waste in the oceans and microplastics in food, I would now like to give you the following tips to help you make a real difference in your everyday life itself simply by following your heart.

Avoid microplastics

First of all, it is important to prevent microplastics from entering your household via the drains. Implement the following tips, among others, to Avoid microplastics:

  • Use CodeCheck app: Microplastics have many names in the list of ingredients. With the App CodeCheck you can quickly see whether plastic is contained in the respective product by scanning the barcode.
  • Prefer natural cosmetics: Make a conscious decision to choose natural and microplastic-free alternatives for toothpastes, shampoos, scrubs and other body care products. They only contain ingredients that are all biodegradable.
  • Wear natural clothing: From swimming trunks that come into direct contact with water to everyday clothing from which fibers come loose in the washing machine - opt for clothing made from natural fabrics and against synthetic clothing wherever possible.
  • Wash clothes in the wash bag: By placing synthetic clothes in a special washing bag in the washing machine, most of the dissolved plastic fibers can be caught. The so-called Guppyfriend you get here*.

Avoiding plastic waste in everyday life

Apart from the fact that you should not leave plastic waste in the environment, but dispose of it properly, it is a good idea to specifically avoid plastic waste. Live plastic freeis so nice because it can be implemented immediately.

Here are some ideas on how you can avoid the creation of larger plastic products and thus minimize the risk of plastic in the food chain:

  • Reusable instead of disposable: Choose reusable everyday items over disposable products. For example, use a cloth bag for your shopping and avoid plastic bags - or enjoy your drinks by such glass straws*, instead of through a plastic straw.
  • Drink tap water from reusable water bottles: Tap water is free from microplastics and is much cheaper and more climate and environmentally friendly than mineral water packaged in plastic bottles. I drink it from this reusable stainless steel drinking bottle*. and simply fill it up with tap water on the way.
  • Cook fresh instead of eating convenience foods: The more you cook fresh, the easier it is to avoid plastic. It's very easy to buy loose fruit and vegetables without packaging - for example at supermarkets or weekly markets.

Stop eating fish and other seafood

We can prevent the generation of plastic waste in everyday life to a certain extent - but does not mean that the waste already floating around in the oceans will disappear and contributes significantly to microplastics in the food chain.

This is to prevent you from ingesting plastic residues, that have accumulated in a living being, you should question and end your consumption of fish and other marine animals. Countless plant-based alternatives (from vegan salmon to vegan shrimps) make the changeover all the easier.

By not eating seafood, you also reduce possible exposure to heavy metals. That Fish are intelligent, sentient creatures and the oceans have long been overfished are just two of many other good reasons for this, not to eat fish anymore.

Tip: What else you can do against overfishing the oceans I will explain how to do this in a separate, more detailed article.

Informing and supporting projects

Beach cleanup campaign against littering

Change starts with yourself. Find out more about the problem of plastic waste and how you can become part of the solution yourself. Also take action outside your personal bubble to help the to drive social change and reduce the risk of microplastics in our food. Pass on your knowledge and help other people to develop an awareness of the dangerous bioaccumulation of pollutants.

I have also put together some ideas for you:

  • Support NABU Germany: Together with the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, you can help protect rivers, oceans, forests and endangered species. It doesn't matter whether you "lend a hand" yourself or become a marine sponsor. Here you can get further information to support NABU.
  • Use information from the BUND: The Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland e.V. also regularly publishes studies on the problem. Take a quick look at this guide on the subject of microplastics on. It summarizes the dangers, actions and plans of the federal government and also shows once again in concrete terms what everyone can do personally.
  • Start or support petitions: Grievances can only be eliminated if people raise their voices. By making a Create an online petition or support them, you can accelerate political change or persuade manufacturers to stop using microplastics in their products. Also the App Replace Plastic helps to force a change in thinking among manufacturers.
  • Organize CleanUps: Whether in cities, forests or on beaches - supported or organize regular clean-up campaigns to remove plastic waste from the environment. It's fun, brings like-minded people together and makes a real difference. At the so-called Plogging this can even be combined with a sports training session or two.
  • Read books: With my Book "Plastic-free for beginners" for example, you have a detailed guide to avoiding waste in everyday life. If you like, get it here*.

Plastic in the food chain - getting to the root of the problem

Plastic in the food chain is an invisible danger to humans and animals. The more plastic waste we produce, the sooner or later - as primary or secondary microplastics - ends up in the sea and thus in the stomachs of marine animals and possibly also of us humans.

"Plastic will be the main ingredient of all our grandchildren's recipes."

 Anthony T. Hincks (more at Zero Waste Quotes)

We are poisoning ourselves. If we want to prevent this, we have no choice but to prevent the creation of plastic waste as far as possible and remove the plastic that has already been created and carelessly disposed of from our environment.

Do you have any questions, tips or suggestions about plastic in the food chain? Then I look forward to your comment.

Stay clean,

CareElite Christoph

PS: More waste-avoiding Zero Waste Tips can now be found in the linked article. Just try to integrate them into your everyday life bit by bit. Have fun with the implementation!

₁ Environ. Sci. Technol. (2020): Quantitative Analysis of Selected Plastics in High-Commercial-Value Australian Seafood by Pyrolysis Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry, available at [23.05.2023].

₂ University for Continuing Education Krems: Phthalates - Do plasticizers make you infertile?, available at [23.05.2023].

₃ DER SPIEGEL: Microplastics in seafood Frutti di Plastik (as at: 12.08.2020), available at [23.05.2023].

₄ H. Koch: Hormone diseases caused by plasticizers (as of 19.03.2010), available at [23.05.2023].

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* Links with asterisks are so-called Affiliate linksIf you click on it and buy something, you automatically and actively support my work with, as I receive a small share of the proceeds - and of course nothing changes in the product price. Many thanks for your support and best regards, Christoph!

Christoph Schulz

Christoph Schulz

I'm Christoph, an environmental scientist and author - and here at CareElite I'm campaigning against plastic waste in the environment, climate change and all the other major environmental problems of our time. Together with other environmentally conscious bloggers, I want to give you tips & tricks for a naturally healthy, sustainable life as well as your personal development.

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