Comparisons with Other Environmental Media

Of greatest concern for management appears to be how the concentrations of hazardous chemicals accumulating on plastic debris compared to other environmental media. For several chemical groups it has been shown that pollutants can partition to plastic at greater than or equal concentrations than other environmental media. For example, POPs can accumulate on plastic debris at concentrations up to six orders of magnitude greater than ambient water (Ogata et al. 2009). Floating plastics are associated with the sea-surface microlayer, at the interface between the ocean and atmosphere, where large concentrations of chemical contaminants (e.g. PBTs and metals) accumulate due to its unique chemical composition (i.e. of lipids, fatty acids and proteins). Here, concentrations of organic contaminants are found at concentrations up to 500 × greater than underlying waters (Wurl and Obbard 2004). As such, floating plastic debris could easily accumulate relatively large concentrations of chemical contaminants from this sea-surface microlayer (Mato et al. 2001), and may be one reason why we find large concentrations of chemicals on floating plastic debris recovered globally, including in remote regions (Heskett et al. 2012; Hirai et al. 2011). When comparing plastic debris to other solid matrices, concentrations of POPs on plastics have been found to accumulate at concentrations up to two orders of magnitude greater than on sediment and suspended particulates (Mato et al. 2001; Teuten et al. 2007) and concentrations of metals on plastics have been found at similar concentrations (Holmes et al. 2012) to those on nearby sediment. Still, a thermodynamically-based model, assuming equilibrium, predicts that with the current concentrations of plastic debris in the oceans the total fraction of POPs sorbed to plastic debris is negligible in relation to all other media globally (i.e. <1 %; Gouin et al. 2011).

The accumulation of chemicals on plastic debris has several potential implications for management. It could be positive if plastic debris aids in the removal of some chemicals from the environment. For example, they may act as a permanent sink when plastic debris transports vertically to the bottom of the ocean in the same way that sinking natural particles (e.g. phytoplankton cells and fecal pellets) are considered a final sink when they sequester POPs (Dachs et al. 2002). However, it may also be considered negative if it aids in the transport of hazardous chemicals to remote regions of the world and/or to marine food webs. As such, it is important to understand how plastic debris acts as a sink, and also as a source.

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