Persistence of Plastic Litter in the Oceans

Abstract The increasing global production and use of plastics has led to an accumulation of enormous amounts of plastic litter in the world's oceans. Characteristics such as low density, good mechanical properties and low cost allow for successful use of plastics in industries and everyday life but the high durability leads to persistence of the synthetic polymers in the marine environment where they cause harm to a great variety of organisms. In the diverse marine habitats, including beaches, the sea surface, the water column, and the seafloor, plastics are exposed to different environmental conditions that either accelerate or decelerate the physical, chemical and biological degradation of plastics. Degradation of plastics occurs primarily through solar UV-radiation induced photo oxidation reactions and is, thus, most intensive in photic environments such as the sea surface and on beaches. The rate of degradation is temperature-dependent resulting in considerable deceleration of the processes in seawater, which is a good heat sink. Below the photic zone in the water column, plastics degrade very slowly resulting in high persistence of plastic litter especially at the seafloor. Biological decomposition of plastics by microorganisms is negligible in the marine environment because the kinetics of biodegradation at sea is particularly slow and oxygen supply for these processes limited. Degradation of larger plastic items leads to the formation of abundant small microplastics. The transport of small particles to the seafloor and their deposition in the benthic environment is facilitated by the colonization of the material by fouling organisms, which increase the density of the particles and force them to sink.

Keywords Synthetic polymer Mechanical properties Weathering Embrittlement

Photo oxidation Microplastics


Studies on the occurrence of marine litter on beaches and as flotsam generally find plastics to be the major component of the mix of debris (Galgani et al. 2015). Plastics have diverse uses and are gaining popularity in building and packaging applications because of their ease of processing, durability and relatively low cost (Andrady and Neal 2009). However, this predominance of plastics in litter is not the result of relatively more plastics being littered compared to paper, paperboard or wood products reaching the oceans, but because of the exceptional durability or persistence of plastics in the environment. Data on plastic debris on sediments are more limited (Spengler and Costa 2008) but suggest that plastics represent a significant fraction of the benthic debris as well (Watters et al. 2010). Quantitative information on the density of litter on beaches or in the ocean classified according to the class of plastic, are not available. Usual classification is by geometry (e.g. fiber) or by product type (e.g. cigarette butts). Also the surveys of water-borne plastic debris collected via neuston net sampling of surface waters (Hidalgo-Ruz et al. 2012) and even beach studies (Ng and Obbard 2006; Browne et al. 2011) close to the water line, seriously underestimate the magnitude of plastic litter. Not only do these exclude the negatively buoyant plastics but also fragments smaller than the mesh-size of the nets used.

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