For young fish, plastic is basically the McDonald’s all-day breakfast

Dinner time?
Dinner time?
Image: Reuters/Cheryl Ravelo
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What do young fish and human teenagers have in common? They both prefer eating fast food to the detriment to their health.

That’s the conclusion on a recent study analyzing the impact of large volumes of plastic from human trash that plague the seas, which raises fears about what plastic can do to vital marine life.

Researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden reared larval fish in different concentrations of microplastic particles. The findings, published in the journal Science, showed that fish exposed to high concentrations of microplastic particles while developing went on to display abnormal behaviors. These went on to only eat plastic, ignoring their natural food. Researchers were especially surprised that they preferred plastic to their natural food source.

“They are basically fooled into thinking it’s a high-energy resource that they need to eat a lot of,” lead author Dr Oona Lonnstedt told BBC News. “I think of it as unhealthy fast food for teenagers, and they are just stuffing themselves.”

Fish who ended up eating more plastic were significantly smaller than fish reared in average concentrations of microplastic particles, were much less active than fish reared in waters that contained no microplastic particles, and ignored the smell of predators—which made them more vulnerable.

Currently, the world produces an estimated 311 million tons of plastic every year. It’s made its way into our food, and is set to be here long after we’re gone. Researchers are becoming increasingly concerned about the accumulation of plastic in the sea, and for good reason.

By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea.