A Muscle Man with mussels fighting trash

Step aside whale poop. There’s a new poo patrol in town.

I’m talking about mussels here, those clam-looking things that taste great in a pescatore. Only after you find out what they eat, you might not want to order it the next time you’re at a ristorante.

Here’s the rub: the ocean is filled with pollutants, and one of the worst is microplastics. As the name implies, these are tiny particles of plastic, trillions of them in fact, that can get into the intestines and other organs of fish and wreak havoc.

Being so small and numerous, microplastics are notoriously difficult to clean up. Until they meet their match: the mussel. Specifically, the blue mussel (Mytilus edulis for you Latin freaks).

The blue mussel gobbles up microplastics like it’s nothing.

In a recent experiment in Cornwall, England, scientists filled a steel tank with microplastic-contaminated water, along with some blue mussels borrowed from a local farm.

The mussels went to work in no time, eating two-thirds of the garbage. And the scientists don’t think that’s as good as they could perform in the wild. 

With higher concentrations of microplastics, they speculate the mussels could remove as much as a quarter of a million particles an hour. What a feast!

How does this help? When the mussels eat these microparticles, they sequester the little bastards in their feces. And that’s the amazing thing.

The blue mussel poo is where the mussels really show their muscle.

I couldn’t help myself.

Anyway, the mussel poo traps the microplastics, and since the poo is heavy, it’s easy to collect. This turns what was a nightmare cleanup job into a relative cinch.

Still, you need a lot of mussels to make this work. One scientist estimates it could take as many as 2 million mussels filtering water 24 hours a day to clean up the water in one New Jersey bay. 

But this guy also says that a benefit of using muscles is they don’t retain the microplastics, so they’re safe to eat. Maybe, but…I don’t know.

Moving on from his culinary taste, a legitimate challenge would be not overburdening a local ecoystem with your mussel army. But while that is a concern, the mussels’ ability to gobble up such a toxic contaminant might make the risk worth it.

Still, as one of the leading scientists points out, the real solution lies at the source: us. “We need to be stopping plastics at the source,” Penelope Lindeque, an ecologist at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory who led the research says.

That might be a tall order for a long time, and while we humans get our act together, perhaps relying on our mussel friends isn’t such a bad idea.

Or maybe we’re but a stepping stone for their rise to power, feasting on our trash until they span the globe. Maybe the mussels are farming us.

Food for thought.

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By Brady Nelson

Brady has been using bathroom breaks to escape work since junior high. All that time spent on the throne eventually led to a substantial amount of philosophical thought. He dove deep into thoughts like, “how can I hide the amount of time I’m on YouTube while at work?” Alas, Brady found Poopable, a place that disregards his time spent on social media and celebrates his light-hearted cynical take on everyday topics. You can also read more of his writing at The Timeless Cynic on substack.