Plastic Marine Debris: A Complex Mixture of Chemicals

Marine plastic debris is associated with a complex mixture of chemicals, including those that are ingredients of the plastic material (e.g. monomers and additives),

Fig. 5.1 Cocktail of contaminants associated with marine plastic debris. Contaminants associated with marine debris include chemical ingredients (red squares), byproducts of manufacturing (yellow squares) and those that accumulate from surrounding ocean water in the marine environment (blue squares)

byproducts of manufacturing (e.g. chemicals composed during the combustion of the raw material petroleum) and chemical contaminants in the ocean that accumulate on plastic when it becomes marine debris (e.g. persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and metals). There is evidence that this mixture, or 'cocktail of contaminants' (Fig. 5.1; Rochman 2013), can be bioavailable to whales (Fossi et al. 2012, 2014), basking sharks (Fossi et al. 2014), seabirds (Teuten et al. 2009; Tanaka et al. 2013; Lavers et al. 2014), amphipods (Chua et al. 2014), crickets (Gaylor et al. 2012), lugworms (Arenicola marina) (Besseling et al. 2013; Browne et al. 2013) and fish (Rochman et al. 2013b) upon ingestion. This is a cause for concern, as the (USEPA 2013) and the European Union (European Commission 2014) list several of these chemicals as priority pollutants because they are persistent, bioacummulative and/or toxic. In fact, of the chemicals listed as priority pollutants by the US EPA, 78 % are associated with marine plastic debris (Rochman et al. 2013a). This section discusses the complex mixture of chemicals associated with marine plastic debris, including those that originate from manufacturing, that accumulate from surrounding ocean water and how this mixture may vary according to the location where plastic is discarded and the plastic type.

Plastics and Their Chemical Ingredients

There are several different types of plastics manufactured into a diversity of products. Each is produced by polymerizing individual monomers, forming the backbone of the polymer. These are made using solvents and other chemicals that may be used as initiators and catalysts. Next, several additives (e.g. flame retardants, stabilizers, pigments and fillers) are included to give the plastic certain characteristics (e.g. flexibility, strength and color; OECD 2004; Lithner et al. 2011). Such chemicals, in addition to byproducts, may be released during production, use and disposal of the product, several of which can be harmful (Oehlmann et al. 2009; Teuten et al. 2009; Halden et al. 2010; Lithner et al. 2011; Papaleo et al. 2011). According to United Nations and European Union frameworks, >50 % of the plastics that are produced are hazardous based upon their constituent monomers, additives and byproducts (Lithner et al. 2011).

The backbone structure, derived from long chains of monomers, are thought to be biochemically inert due to their large molecular size (Teuten et al. 2009; Lithner et al. 2011). Still, several of these are shown to have harmful effects (Xu et al. 2004; Halden et al. 2010; Lithner et al. 2011). Bisphenol A, used in the production of polycarbonate, can have endocrine disrupting effects (Oehlmann et al. 2009; Crain et al. 2007; Halden et al. 2010) and the styrene and polyvinyl chloride monomer, used in the production of polystyrene and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), can be carcinogenic and/or mutagenic (Papaleo et al. 2011; Xu et al. 2004; Lithner et al. 2011) and are listed as toxic substances by the USEPA, ATSDR and OSPAR.

Several of the chemicals used in the production process, including solvents, suspension aids, surfactants, initiators, catalysts and byproducts can also be harmful upon exposure (Lithner et al. 2011). For example, tributyltin (shown to cause endocrine disruption in molluscs; Oehlmann et al. 1996) and copper chloride (shown to have developmental effects on fish; Anderson et al. 1991) are added as catalysts during production (Lithner et al. 2011) and several solvents (shown to be carcinogenic; Lynge et al. 1997) are used in the production process (e.g. methanol, cyclohexane and 1,2-dichlorobenzene; Braun et al. 2005; Gowariker et al. 2003; Lithner et al. 2011).

The additive ingredients include plasticizers, antioxidants, fl and UV-stabilizers. In some cases, the ingredients make up a large proportion of the plastic product. Phthalates may constitute up to 50 % of the total weight of PVC plastics (Bauer and Herrmann 1997). The use of additives is also not equally distributed across plastic types—PVC requires the most additives accounting for 73 % of the world production of additives by volume, followed by polyethylene and polypropylene (10 % by volume) and styrenics (5 % by volume) (Lithner et al. 2011). Several of these have been recognized or suggested to be hazardous, including the brominated fl retardants (PBDEs), phthalate plasticizers and lead heat stabilizers (Oehlmann et al. 2009; Halden et al. 2010; Lithner et al. 2011).

Finally, some hazardous chemicals may be produced as byproducts during manufacturing. PAH formation occurs during the production cycle of polystyrene (Zabaniotou and Kassidi 2003; Kwon and Castaldi 2008). Residuals of these chemicals may be difficult to remove, therefore carry over into the plastic product and become one of the many chemicals in the cocktail of contaminants associated with marine plastic debris. Thus, when considering the hazards associated with plastic debris, it is important to consider polymer type.

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