A seabird snared by plastic six-pack rings, plastic pellets filling up a fish's stomach — such images aren't new.
But what happens when tons of plastic debris slowly break down in the open ocean and leach toxic chemicals, furnish an unnatural reef for microbes or get gobbled up by marine life, from plankton on up the food chain, is far less understood.
We also don't know what plastics — broken into tiny brittle bits or pulverized to powder — wreak on the marine ecosystem when they settle into Chesapeake Bay sediment or mingle with beach sand.
Rob Hale at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point hopes to rectify that.
"I'm interested in the stuff that might reside in sediments and up in coastal sediments (or) end up on the shoreline, which gives greater potential exposure to whatever lives there," said Hale, an environmental chemist.
"Local filter feeders would be potentially exposed to these elevated levels of particles and be more vulnerable. Oysters, which filter feed, zooplankton, which support the food chain, could potentially be affected. The interesting thing is, no one's really looked at that."