Plastic Debris as a Sink for Environmental Contaminants

There is no doubt that plastic debris acts as a sink for chemical contaminants in the marine environment. What is less understood is the process by which this occurs, how this varies over space and time and by polymer and chemical, and how important plastic is as a sink for chemicals relative to other environmental media (e.g. sediment, water and biota). The primary focus of this section will be on processes of chemical accumulation, temporal trends and comparisons among other environmental media.

Process of Accumulation

As noted above, the concentration of chemicals that sorb to plastic debris varies according to polymer type and chemical substance. One reason for these differences is the mechanism by which chemicals accumulate on the plastic. For some plastics (i.e. polyethylene and polyoxymethylene), organic chemicals absorb into the polymeric matrix (providing greater surface area for chemicals to accumulate), whereas for other plastics the chemicals adsorb to the surface (Karapanagioti and Klontza 2008). As discussed above, these differences are related to the structure of each polymer type. Despite this, observations are not consistent among contaminant groups. As such, the polymer structure may be less important and instead accumulation may be primarily facilitated by other factors. In this case, it is important to note that changes that occur to the plastic when it becomes marine debris (e.g. fouling and degradation) can alter the structure of the plastic debris (e.g. increasing their surface area and/or charge; Artham et al. 2009; Holmes et al. 2012, 2014), changing the way of how chemicals accumulate on the material.

Rate of Accumulation

Alterations of the plastic material when it becomes marine debris also impact the rate at which chemicals accumulate, also varying by polymer type and chemical of interest. For example, chemicals with less hydrophobicity and a lighter molecular weight reach saturation faster than those with greater hydrophobicity and a heavier molecular weight (Müller et al. 2001; Rochman et al. 2013c). Moreover, the mechanism by which chemicals accumulate will affect the rate of accumulation. For example, we observe faster saturation of POPs on PET and PVC whose glassy structure allow for adsorption only, than for polyethylene, where diffusion into the polymeric matrix facilitates a rapid adsorption to the surface followed by a slower increase via absorption (Rochman et al. 2013c).

Of concern for management is the slower rate of accumulation that occurs in the marine environment when compared to a laboratory setting. In a laboratory, chemicals (e.g. PAHs and metals) reach equilibrium on plastic in less than 72 h (Teuten et al. 2007; Holmes et al. 2012), whereas in the marine environment equilibrium occurs much slower (Mato et al. 2001; Rochman et al. 2013c). For example, on plastic pellets of various types (PET, PVC, polyethylene and polypropylene) that were deployed in a contaminated bay for up to 1 year, neither PCBs, PAHs or metals reached equilibrium for at least 3 months and in several cases did not reach equilibrium within the 1-year time period (Rochman et al. 2013c, 2014a). In the marine environment, the surface properties of the plastic debris consistently change. As plastic debris weathers it gains surface area, generates oxygen groups (increasing polarity; Mato et al. 2001; Fotopoulou and Karapanagioti 2012) and fouls (increasing their charge, roughness and porosity) (Artham et al. 2009)—all allowing plastic debris to accumulate increasingly larger concentrations of chemical contaminants (Holmes et al. 2012; Fotopoulou and Karapanagioti 2012; Rochman et al. 2013c, 2014a). Thus, in general, the longer the plastic is in the water, the greater concentrations of chemical contaminants it will accumulate (Engler et al. 2012), suggesting that plastic debris may become more hazardous the longer it remains at sea.

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