Plastic Debris as a Source of Environmental Contaminants

Plastic, like other PBTs (e.g. POPs; Sinkonnen et al. 2000; Dachs et al. 2002), are persistent and bioaccumulative, and thus can be transported long distances via ocean currents (Law et al. 2010; Maximenko et al. 2012) or by the migration of ocean life. As such, plastics debris may play a role in the transport of sorbed chemical contaminants and chemical ingredients globally (Engler et al. 2012; Cheng et al. 2013; Endo et al. 2013; Kwon et al. 2014).

Global Transport

While sorbed onto fl plastic debris, chemical contaminants may be transported long distances, including across or even to adjacent oceans (Zarfl and Matthies 2010; Engler et al. 2012). Negatively buoyant plastics, or plastic debris that becomes negatively buoyant upon fouling, will sink to the seafl transporting any sorbed contaminants to the benthos where sediment-dwelling organisms reside. If these chemicals are released upon degradation of the material, plastic debris may be a source of chemical contaminants into pelagic and benthic marine habitats (Teuten et al. 2007; Hirai et al. 2011). While some contaminants may be lost due to biological or physical degradation (Sinkonnen et al. 2000; Rochman et al. 2013c), leaching of chemicals back to the environment may be of concern in remote and more pristine regions where sources of chemical contaminants are sparse (Teuten et al. 2007; Hirai et al. 2011; Heskett et al. 2012). Laboratory studies have found that plastics with sorbed POPs release a considerable amount of these chemicals upon being placed in clean water (Teuten et al. 2007; Endo et al. 2013).

The behavior of chemicals from plastic debris will likely be dependent upon location-specific considerations that include temperature, salinity, the intensity of solar radiation, biodegradation rates, and the presence of co-contaminants (Sinkonnen et al. 2000; Dachs et al. 2002; Bakir et al. 2012, 2014; Holmes et al. 2014). This process will also vary according to the hydrophobicity of the chemicals, such that chemicals with a greater hydrophobicity desorb much slower and may take years or even centuries to fully attain equilibrium (Endo et al. 2013). This has implications for management, as certain chemicals may transfer long distances holding onto the plastic as it migrates from a contaminated region to one that is remote and/or more pristine. Plastic debris sampled from remote regions with sporadic large concentrations of chemical support this theory (Hirai et al. 2011; Heskett et al. 2012).

A further consideration is how the transport of chemicals hitchhiking on plastic debris compares to other transport mechanisms, such as atmospheric or ocean currents. A group of researchers used thermodynamically-based model calculations (assuming sorptive equilibrium) to determine the relative importance of plastic debris as a source of PBTs to the remote Arctic Ocean (Zarfl and Matthies 2010). Their models conclude that transport via atmospheric and ocean currents are orders of magnitude larger than via plastic particles, determining that the contribution of PBTs from plastic debris may be negligible compared with annual PBT flux from other global-transport mechanisms (Zarfl and Matthies 2010). The authors warn that their model estimations include considerable uncertainty and suggest that future studies test the importance of plastic-mediated transport for chemicals with greater hydrophobicity and that are not generally transported via air or ocean currents (Zarfl and Matthies 2010). Moreover, there is a need to better understand the influence from different types of polymers and chemical contaminants (Gouin et al. 2011). The physical and chemical properties (e.g. boiling point, vapor pressure, water solubility and octanol-water partitioning) of the monomers and additive ingredients in addition to properties of the polymer (e.g. the size of the plastic and its pore size) are important when assessing the environmental fate of associated chemicals (Teuten et al. 2009; Lithner et al. 2011). For example, glassy polymers, like PVC, have a slower desorption rate than rubbery polymers, such as polyethylene (Teuten et al. 2009). Moreover, one should consider how desorption may differ in the presence of the microbial biofouling that populates plastic debris in the marine environment (Zettler et al. 2013) and may provide greater surface area for sorption, biodegrade and/or transform the chemical contaminants, or facilitate chemical leaching or transport into other environmental media, including the biota (Gouin et al. 2011).

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