Plastic Degradation and the Microplastic Boom

Although many plastics are remarkably persistent, they are not immune to degradation. Indeed the plastics industry goes to considerable effort to slow the rate of degradation in many applications (Andrady et al. 2003). Ultraviolet (UV) radiation plays a key role in plastic degradation, and because UV light is absorbed rapidly by water, plastics generally take much longer to degrade at sea than on land (Andrady 2003). However, the rate of degradation depends on the ambient temperature as well as polymer type, additives and fillers (Andrady et al. 2003). Carpenter and Smith (1972) observed some degradation in polyethylene pellets collected at sea, but Gregory (1987) inferred degradation occurred more rapidly in stranded plastics, where they were exposed to high levels of UV radiation. The proportion of degraded pellets increased higher up the beach, away from the most recent strandline (Gregory 1987). Little is known about the fate of plastic that sinks to the seafloor; it is widely assumed that plastic is largely impervious to degradation once shielded from UV radiation (Goldberg 1997). However, there is some evidence that plastic fragments may be susceptible to bacterial decay at sea (Harshvardhan and Jha 2013; Zettler et al. 2013).

At the same time that plastics were being recognized as a significant marine pollutant, it was recognized that plastic litter was broken down by photodegradation and oxidation (Scott 1972; Cundell 1974). Scott (1972) reported how some beach litter items became embrittled and were reduced to small particles by very slight pressure. The apparent lack of disintegrated plastic around such items led him to conclude that the particles “had clearly been absorbed rapidly by the environment” (Scott 1972, p. 36). Gregory (1983) also assumed that this process led to “complete degradation of the plastic pellets and dispersal as dust” (p. 82). However, it was a case of out of sight, out of mind. Thompson et al. (2004) showed that microscopic plastic fragments and fibres are ubiquitous marine pollutants. Together with the high media profile given the Pacific 'garbage patch' (Moore et al. 2001) and similar litter aggregations in other mid-ocean gyres (e.g. Law et al. 2010; Eriksen et al. 2013a), the research by Thompson et al. (2004) was largely responsible for the recent resurgence in interest in the marine litter problem (Fig. 1.2). Like larger plastic items, 'microplastics' (Ryan and Moloney 1990) are now found throughout the world's oceans, including in deep-sea sediments (van Cauwenberghe et al. 2013).

There is ongoing debate as to the size limit for 'microplastics' (Thompson 2015). Some authors take a broad view, including items <5 mm diameter (Arthur et al. 2009), whereas others restrict the term to items <2 mm, <1 mm or even <500 μm (Cole et al. 2011). Andrady (2011) argued the need for three terms: mesoplastics (500 μm–5 mm), microplastics (50–500 μm) and nanoplastics (<50 μm), each with their own set of physical characteristics and biological impacts. Depending on the upper size limit, industrial pellets may or may not be included in the term. But even if we adopt a narrow view, not all microplastics derive from degradation of larger plastic items. Some cosmetics, hand cleaners and air blast cleaning media contain small (<500 μm) plastic beads manufactured specifically for this purpose (Zitko and Hanlon 1991; Gregory 1996), the so-called primary microplastics (Cole et al. 2011). The proportion of primary microplastics in the environment probably is small compared to secondary microplastics, except for some areas of the Great Lakes in the United States (Eriksen et al. 2013b), but it is a largely avoidable source of pollution. Public pressure has already forced one major chemical company to commit to phasing out the use of plastic scrubbers in their products by 2015.

Much of the concern around microplastics concerns their role in introducing persistent organic pollutants (POPs) into marine foodwebs (Cole et al. 2011; Ivar do Sul and Costa 2014). Some of the additives used to modify the properties of plastics are biologically active, potentially affecting development and reproduction (Oehlmann et al. 2009; Meeker et al. 2009). Also, hydrophobic POPs in seawater are adsorbed onto plastic items (Carpenter et al. 1972; Mato et al. 2001; Teuten et al. 2009), and the smaller the particle, the more efficiently they accumulate toxins (Andrady 2011). Thompson et al. (2004) showed that invertebrates from three feeding guilds (detritivores, deposit feeders and filter feeders) all consumed microscopic plastic particles, reinforcing the results of early selectivity experiments demonstrating that filter feeders can consume small plastic particles (De Mott 1988; Bern 1990). Small particles also are eaten by myctophid fish (Boerger et al. 2010), which are an important trophic link in many oceanic ecosystems (Davison and Asch 2011). The subject of POP transfer is explored in more detail by Rochman (2015), but it is worth noting that strict controls on the use of several POPs (e.g. PCBs, HCHs, DDT and its derivatives) have decreased their concentrations on plastic pellets over the last few decades (Ryan et al. 2012). There remain concerns about the health impacts of other compounds whose use is not as strictly regulated (e.g. PBDE, BPA, phthalates, nonylphenol, etc.; Meeker et al. 2009; Oehlmann et al. 2009; Gassel et al. 2013), and even the ingestion of uncontaminated microplastic particles can induce stress responses in fish (Rochman et al. 2013b).

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