III Microplastics

Microplastics in the Marine Environment: Sources, Consequences and Solutions

Abstract Microplastics are small fragments of plastic debris that have accumulated in the environment on a global scale. They originate from the direct release of particles of plastic and as a consequence of the fragmentation of larger items. Microplastics are widespread in marine habitats from the poles to the equator; from the sea surface and shoreline to the deep sea. They are ingested by a range of organisms including commercially important fish and shellfish and in some populations the incidence of ingestion is extensive. Laboratory studies indicate that ingestion could cause harmful toxicological and/or physical effects. However, our understanding of the relative importance of these effects in natural populations is very limited. Looking to the future it seems inevitable that the quantity of microplastic will increase in the environment, since even if we could stop new items of debris entering the ocean, fragmentation of the items already present would continue for years to come. The term microplastics has only been in popular usage for a decade and while many questions remain about the extent to which they could have harmful effects, the solutions to reducing this contamination are at hand. There are considerable synergies to be achieved by designing plastic items for both their lifetime in service and their efficient end-of-life recyclability, since capturing waste via recycling will reduce usage of non-renewable oil and gas used in the production of new plastics and at the same time reduce the accumulation of waste in managed facilities such as land fill as well as in the natural environment.

Keywords Microplastic Microbeads Accumulation Impact Toxicology Solution


Microplastics is used as a collective term to describe a truly heterogeneous mixture of particles ranging in size form a few microns to several millimetres in diameter; including particles of various shapes from completely spherical to elongated fibres. Microplastics have been reported in a range of colors. However, pieces that differ in appearance according to their shape size or color to ambient natural particulates are most commonly reported, for example blue or red fibres (Hidalgo-Ruz et al. 2012). The term microplastics has been widely used in relation to anthropogenic debris since 2004 when Thompson et al. used the term to illustrate and describe the accumulation of truly microscopic pieces of plastic in marine sediments and in the water column in European waters (Fig. 7.1). Microplastic contamination has since been reported on a global scale from the poles to the equator (Barnes et al. 2009; Browne et al. 2011; Hidalgo-Ruz et al. 2012) and contaminates the water surface of the open ocean (Law et al. 2010; Collignon et al. 2012; Goldstein et al. 2012; Ivar do Sul et al. 2013), estuaries (Sadri and Thompson 2014) and lakes (Eriksen et al. 2013) together with marine (Browne et al. 2011; Santos et al. 2009) and freshwater shorelines (Imhof et al. 2013) and subtidal sediments (Browne et al. 2011) down to the deep sea (Van Cauwenberghe et al. 2013; Woodall et al. 2014). Microplastics have also been reported in considerable concentrations in Arctic sea ice (Obbard et al. 2014; Fig. 7.2). Over the past decade, interest in the topic has grown immensely and there are now well over 100 publications on microplastic (Fig. 7.3) and numerous reviews (Browne et al. 2007; Arthur et al. 2009; Andrady 2011; Cole et al. 2011; Zarfl et al. 2011; Wright et al. 2013b; Ivar do Sul and Costa 2014; Law and Thompson 2014) spanning sources, occurrence, abundance, ingestion by biota and consequences. Alongside this scientific research there has been growing interest from the media, the public and policy makers. The first policy centered workshop on the topic was hosted by NOAA in the USA during 2008 (Arthur et al. 2009). Specific reference to microplastics was later made within EU legislation via the Marine Strategy Framework Directive in 2010 (Galgani et al. 2010), and more recently there has been legislation and voluntary actions by industry to reduce the use of microplastics in cosmetics. However, even in the unlikely event that inputs of larger items of debris were to cease immediately, it is likely that the quantities of microplastics would continue to increase in the environment due to the fragmentation of legacy items of larger debris. Hence, it is essential to gain further understanding about the sources, consequences and fate of microplastics in the ocean.

Microplastics originate from a variety of sources, but these can be broadly categorized as primary: the direct release of small particles, for example, as a result of release of pellets or powders, or secondary, which results from fragmentation of larger items (Andrady 2011; Cole et al. 2011; Hidalgo-Ruz et al. 2012). Microplastic-sized particles are directly used in a wide range of applications. Plastic pellets (around 5 mm diameter) and powders (less than 0.5 mm) are used as a feedstock for the production of larger items and the presence of these pellets (also

Fig. 7.1 a Sampling locations in the northeast Atlantic: six sites near Plymouth used to compare the abundance of microplastic among habitats, (open square) (see Fig. 7.1d). Other shores where similar fragments were found (black solid circles). Dashed lines show routes sampled by Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR 1 and 2) and used to assess changes in microplastic abundance since 1960. b One of numerous fragments found among marine sediments and identifi as plastic using FT-IR spectroscopy. c FT-IR spectra of a microscopic fragment matched that of nylon. d Microplastics were more abundant in subtidal habitats than in sandy beaches (* = F2,3 = 13.26, P < 0.05), but abundance was consistent among sites within habitat types. e Microscopic plastic in CPR samples revealed a signifi increase in abundance when comparing the 1960s and 1970s to the 1980s and 1990s (* = F3,3 = 14.42, P < 0.05). Approximate global production of synthetic fi overlain for comparison. Microplastics were also less abundant along oceanic route CPR 2 than CPR 1 (F1, 24 = 5.18, P < 0.05). Reproduced from Thompson et al. (2004) with permission

known as nurdles or mermaids tears) has been widely reported as a consequence of industrial spillage (Hays and Cormons 1974; Bourne and Imber 1982; Harper and Fowler 1987; Shiber 1987; Blight and Burger 1997). Small plastic particles typically around 0.25 mm are also widely used as abrasive in cosmetic products (Fig. 7.4) and as an industrial shot-blasting abrasive. Microplastics from cosmetics and cleaning agents (also known as microbeads) will be carried with waste water via sewers and are unlikely to be effectively removed by sewage treatment, and hence are accumulating in the environment (Zitko and Hanlon 1991; Gregory

Fig. 7.2 Sea ice core being collected during the NASA ICESCAPE expedition in July 2010 (Photo: D. Perovich, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research & Engineering)

Fig. 7.3 Number of publications on microplastics over time (2004–2014). Modified from GESAMP (2014), courtesy of S. Gall, Plymouth University

Fig. 7.4 Scanning electron microscope image of microbeads isolated from cosmetics (Photo: A. Bakir and R.C. Thompson, Plymouth University)

1996). It is estimated that in the US alone around 100 tons of microplastics might enter the oceans annually (Gouin et al. 2011). In addition to the direct release of primary microplastics, larger items of plastic debris will progressively become brittle under the action of ultraviolet light and heat and then fragment with physical action from wind and waves (Andrady 2015). Hence large items of debris are likely to represent a considerable source of microplastics (Andrady 2003, 2011). In addition to fragmentation in the environment, some items also fragment in use resulting in particles of microplastic being released to the environment as a consequence of everyday usage or cleaning. This has been demonstrated for the release of fibres from garments as a consequence of washing (Browne et al. 2011). It is now evident that, as a collective consequence of these diverse inputs, microplastics are widespread in natural habitats and in the organisms living there, including benthic invertebrates, commercially important lobsters, numerous species of fish, sea birds and marine mammals (Murray and Cowie 2011; Possatto et al. 2011; van Franeker et al. 2011; Foekema et al. 2013; Lusher et al. 2013; Rebolledo et al. 2013).

Our understanding about microplastics has advanced considerably over the last decade, but is still in its infancy and our knowledge of the relative importance of various sources, spatial trends in distribution and abundance, temporal trends, or effects on biota are still quite limited (Law and Thompson 2014). Initial work describing microplastics indicated a small increase in the abundance of this debris over time and that in laboratory conditions a range of invertebrates would ingest the material (Thompson et al. 2004). Subsequent work has described the range of habitats (Law et al. 2010; Browne et al. 2011; Van Cauwenberghe et al. 2013) and organisms (Graham and Thompson 2009; Murray and Cowie 2011; van Franeker et al.2011; Lusher et al. 2013) that are contaminated by microplastic in the environment. These early studies have been pioneering in nature providing proof of concept, but are diffi to use as a base line because of the inevitable lack of consistency in methods. In parallel, there have been laboratory studies which have exposed organisms to microplastics in order to determine the potential for this debris to result in harm to the creatures that encounter it in the natural environment (Browne et al. 2008, 2013; Rochman et al. 2013; Wright et al. 2013a). The main route of concern is currently as a consequence of ingestion, which could lead to physical (Wright 2014) and toxicological effects on biota (Teuten et al. 2007; Browne et al. 2008). Plastics are known to sorb persistent organic pollutants (Mato et al. 2001; Ogata et al. 2009; Teuten et al. 2009) and metals (Holmes et al. 2012) from seawater and organic pollutants can become orders of magnitude more concentrated on the surface of the plastic than in the surrounding water (Mato et al. 2001; Ogata et al. 2009; Teuten et al. 2009). There is evidence from laboratory studies that these chemicals can be transferred from plastics to organisms upon ingestion (Teuten et al. 2009) and that this can result in harm (Browne et al. 2013; Rochman et al. 2013; Wright et al. 2013a). The potential for transfer varies according to the specifi combination of plastic and contaminant with some polymers such as polyethylene having considerable potential for transport (Bakir et al. 2012). Subsequent desorption will also vary according to physiological conditions upon ingestion with the presence of gut surfactants and increased temperature leading to increased desorption (Teuten et al. 2007; Bakir et al. 2012). However, modeling studies suggest that when compared to the transport of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) by other pathways such as respiration and food that plastics are not likely to be a major vector in the transport of POPs from seawater to organisms (Gouin et al. 2011; Koelmans et al. 2013). A second toxicological issue is that some plastics contain chemical additives that are potentially harmful (Rochman 2015). These additives can be present in concentrations much greater than is likely to result from sorption of POPs and there is concern that additives might be released to organisms upon ingestion (Oehlmann et al. 2009; Thompson et al. 2009; Rochman and Browne 2013). There is evidence that such chemicals can be present, for example as leachates from landfi sites, in aquatic habitats at concentrations that are suffi to cause harm (Oehlmann et al. 2009). There is also evidence that chemical additives can transfer from plastics to sea birds (Tanaka et al. 2013). However, it is not clear whether ingestion of plastics themselves could result in suffi transfer of additive chemicals to cause harm. This would require experiments with plastics for which the composition of chemical constituents is known.

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