The Accumulation of Chemicals on Plastic Debris in the Marine Environment

Because of their physical and chemical properties, plastics accumulate a complex mixture of chemical contaminants present in the surrounding seawater (Mato et al. 2001; Teuten et al. 2007, 2009; Rochman et al. 2013c; Holmes et al. 2012; Engler 2012), adding to the cocktail of chemicals already present from manufacturing. As a result of widespread global contamination of chemical contaminants (Ogata et al. 2009; Ross and Birnbaum 2010) and plastic debris (Thompson et al. 2004; Barnes et al. 2009; Browne et al. 2011), marine plastic debris is recovered globally with measurable amounts of POPs (e.g. polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), PAHs and PBDEs) and other persistent bioaccumulative and toxic substances (PBTs) (e.g. halogenated flame retardants, pesticides and nonylphenol; Mato et al. 2001; Endo et al. 2005; Ogata et al. 2009; Hirai et al. 2011; Heskett et al. 2012; Rios et al. 2010) and metals (e.g. lead, copper and cadmium; Ashton et al. 2010; Holmes et al. 2012; Rochman et al. 2014a).

PBTs, which include those listed as POPs by the Stockholm Convention, generally have a low water-solubility (i.e. are hydrophobic) and tend to partition out of the water column and onto another environmental matrix with similar hydrophobic properties (e.g. sediment, organic matter); thus, when PBTs encounter plastic debris they tend to sorb to this material (Engler 2012). Thus, it is not surprising that an early study reported PCBs on marine plastic debris (Carpenter and Smith 1972) or that plastics are used as passive samplers to quantify PBTs in aquatic environments (Huckins et al. 1993; Lohmann 2012).

Today, the accumulation of PBTs on plastic debris is unequivocal. Global samples show the presence of PBTs on plastic debris collected from coastal beaches (Van et al. 2011; Heskett et al. 2012; Fries et al. 2012; Fisner et al. 2013; Antunes et al. 2013) all the way to the remote open-ocean (Rios et al. 2007, 2010; Hirai et al. 2011). As such, plastic pre-production pellets, a recognizable component of marine debris, are now used to examine the global pattern of PBTs (Ogata et al. 2009; Takada et al. 2006), acting as passive samplers and providing baseline information regarding PBT contamination in the ocean. International Pellet Watch leads this effort, collecting plastic pellets globally and measuring the concentrations of various PBTs sorbed to plastic debris (Takada et al. 2006; Ogata et al. 2009; see also Fig. 5.3 in Hidalgo-Ruz and Thiel 2015 in this volume).

The presence of organic chemicals on plastic debris may be established globally, but the presence of a complex mixture of metals on plastic debris has only been recently demonstrated (Ashton et al. 2010; Holmes et al. 2012; Nakashima et al. 2011, 2012; Rochman et al. 2014a). Similar to organic chemicals, several metals have long been additive ingredients of plastics (e.g. lead added to PVC; Lithner et al. 2011; Nakashima et al. 2011, 2012), but now we have evidence that plastic debris accumulates metals from ocean water (Ashton et al. 2010; Holmes et al. 2012; Rochman et al. 2014a). Environmental accumulation of metals onto plastics may have been expected, as the surfaces of plastic containers are known to accumulate metals from water samples (Fischer et al. 2007; Weijuan et al. 2001; Robertson 1968). The accumulation of metals on marine plastic debris may be explained by both the chemical ingredients of the plastic (e.g. catalysts, fillers, plasticizers; Robertson 1968) and the degradation and fouling of aquatic plastic debris via microbial biofilms and colonization by algae and invertebrates (Holmes et al. 2012; Tien and Chen 2013) that may generate active sites for the sorption and/or bioaccumulation of metals. As such, similar to organic chemicals, plastic pellets may also serve as a passive sampler for metal contamination in the marine environment.

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