Billions of pieces of plastic spread disease in coral reefs
Billions of pieces of plastic spread disease in coral reefs A new study has highlighted the scope of plastic pollution. (WhitcombeRD via iStock/USAID Indonesia/Flickr)
Billions of pieces of plastic spread disease in coral reefs
Lexile: 1340L

Assign to Google Classroom

It’s no secret that the world’s coral reefs are in bad shape. Climate change has led to widespread coral bleaching, overfishing has disrupted the ecosystems that keep reefs healthy and toxic runoffs from human industry are destroying the so-called “rainforests of the sea.” Now, as Ed Yong reports for the Atlantic, a new study has highlighted the distressing magnitude of yet another threat to coral reefs: plastics.

As part of the study, published in the journal Science, researchers analyzed more than 124,000 corals from 159 reefs in Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and Australia. And nearly everywhere they looked, they saw bits of plastic.

“We came across chairs, chip wrappers, Q-tips, garbage bags, water bottles, old nappies,” Joleah Lamb, a marine disease ecologist at Cornell University and lead author of the study, tells Yong. “Everything you see on the beach is probably lying on the reef.”

The team estimates that at least 11 billion plastic items are ensnared in coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific—and they believe that number will increase by 40 percent by 2025. This could spell disaster for the world’s reefs; the team found that when corals come into contact with plastics, the likelihood of the corals developing a disease jumps from four to 89 percent.

Further investigations are needed to determine precisely how and why plastics make coral susceptible to different diseases. But generally speaking, it seems that plastic debris slices open the skin of the corals and exposes them to pathogens. “Plastic debris can cause physical injury and abrasion to coral tissues by facilitating invasion of pathogens or by exhausting resources for immune system function during wound-healing processes,” the authors of the study write.

Drew Harvell, a professor of marine ecology at Cornell and a co-author of the study, tells Darryl Fears of the Washington Post that plastics also “shade the light coral needs and cut off water flow.”

It is vital to preserve the health of coral reefs for a number of reasons. For one, many marine creatures make their homes within the reefs, which support “more species per unit area than any other marine environment,” according to the NOAA. Reefs also protect coastlines from waves and tropical storms, support both local and international fishing industries and generate billions of dollars for the worldwide tourism industry every year.

Throughout the course of their research, scientists involved in the new study noticed that the plastics problem was not evenly distributed. Reefs near Indonesia had the highest concentration of plastic trash, while reefs near Australia had the lowest. This could be because Australia boasts the best waste removal system—and suggests that there is a relatively easy fix to the issue.

“We can clean up the problem,” Harvell told Fears. “It’s so much easier than climate change.”

Source URL:

Filed Under:  
Assigned 93 times
How does plastic pollution hurt coral reefs?
Write your answers in the comments section below

  • TimT-dec
    3/15/2018 - 01:38 p.m.

    The fish in the waters near the reef may eat the plastic and die. Also the plastic will change the enviroment of the reef and kill the reef.

  • JacobS-dec1
    3/15/2018 - 01:39 p.m.

    When people leave it there.

  • AllenH-dec
    3/15/2018 - 01:42 p.m.

    One day we all going to die because of all the garbage.

  • MakaylaP-dec
    3/15/2018 - 01:50 p.m.

    It hurts the reefs by exposing them to new dieses. Also expose them to pathogen.

  • EmmaR-dec
    3/23/2018 - 10:18 a.m.

    People littering in the world is horrible. I hope they will be able to fix the reefs, and make sure that the numbers do not increase by 40% like they think it will.

  • EthanH-pla1
    9/21/2021 - 02:28 p.m.

    The article informs of the burgeoning problem of plastic waste and its devastating affects on coral reefs and other integral marine environments. The article cites studies which have revealed that plastics are extremely harmful to the health of coral reefs, making them susceptible to disease and other harmful effects. The article concludes that, although this is a significant and important issue for our environment, we can easily fix the problem by simply managing our waste better. This relates to civic engagement in that, as a member of the community, it is our innate responsibility to take care of our surroundings and our environment. Through being informed of the issues that careless plastic litter and waste cause, we can fulfill this responsibility, and become more motivated to help our environment.

  • EmmaB-pla
    9/23/2021 - 01:40 p.m.

    This article describes the harm of letting excess leftover plastic find its way into the ocean. Plastic drastically increases coral reefs' chances of contracting a disease. Coral reefs are vitally important for the ocean environment and increasing levels of plastic being discarded will eventually become an increasingly serious problem.
    This article relates to civic engagement because most people have little idea of the harm that discarded plastic can cause. Additionally, most people worldwide use plastic of some sort on a daily basis, but further education may lead to people making wiser decisions.

  • OttoZW-pla
    9/23/2021 - 10:10 p.m.

    Coral reefs are being harmed due to climate change and pollution. In a study scientists 124,000 corals from 159 reefs in Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, and Australia and found plastic in every single reef. This shows a blatant disregard for the environment which has caused these reefs to get poisoned and die from the many pollutants being dumped in the ocean. To revive these reefs we need to both stop polluting them and clean them up. In countries like Australia with great waste removal systems, they are able to have healthier reefs showing that if we have a good waste removal system we can save the reefs. This is good civic engagement because it calls attention to the problem of pollution. I have done civic engagement similar to this through cleaning up garbage in parks.

  • MatthewR-pla
    9/24/2021 - 12:35 a.m.

    The battle against pollution is still ongoing and one major yet still underappreciated battle is that of plastic affecting our oceans. Due to this high amount of waste being dumped in the ocean, coral reefs have been experiencing an increase of diseases that are negatively affecting them. The main theory behind this sudden increase of diseases among coral reefs is that the plastic waste cuts into the coral tissue of the reef, exposing them to many harmful pathogens that would largely not affect them should their skin remain intact. To be civically engaged in this matter, awareness is again the most important thing to keep in mind. People can't fix an issue they don't know about, and while most people know that polluting the oceans with waste is harmful, they may not fully appreciate the damages that it imposes on all of us.

  • AndrewH-pla1
    9/25/2021 - 01:01 a.m.

    This article talks about the death and degradation of coral reefs around the world due to plastic pieces. Additionally, the article explains how most of these problems seem to be preventable, as the places hardest hit with the coral reef problems are the places with the worst garbage filtration systems. This suggests that more attention to these problems would fix the environmental damage. This relates to civic engagement because as responsible citizens, it is important to take care of your environment.

Take the Quiz Leave a comment