Sources and Pathways of Microplastics to Habitats

Abstract Identifying and eliminating the sources of microplastic to habitats is crucial to reducing the social, environmental and economic impacts of this form of debris. Although eliminating sources of pollution is a fundamental component of environmental policy in the U.S.A. and Europe, the sources of microplastic and their pathways into habitats remain poorly understood compared to other persistent, bioaccumulative and/or toxic substances (i.e. priority pollutants; EPA in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2010–2014 Pollution Prevention (P2) Program Strategic Plan. Washington, USA, pp. 1–34, 2010; EU in Official J Eur Union L334:17–119, 2010). This chapter reviews our understanding of sources and pathways of microplastic, appraises terminology, and outlines future directions for meaningfully integrating research, managerial actions and policy to understand and reduce the infiltration of microplastic to habitats.

Keywords Hypothesis Micrometre Emissions Sewage Storm-water Textile Exfoliants

Defining Sources and Pathways of Microplastic

Since the fi review of microplastic (Browne et al. 2007), a number of terms have been used to describe and categorize sources of microplastic. Some authors have used the terms “primary” and “secondary” to distinguish between sources of microplastic, in which they borrow terminology from atmospheric sciences (Arthur et al. 2009; Cole et al. 2011). In these cases, “primary sources” are those in which microplastic is intentionally produced through extrusion or grinding, either as precursors to other products (e.g. plastic pellets; Costa et al. 2010) or for direct use (e.g. abrasives in cleaning products or rotomilling), whilst “secondary sources” of microplastics are those formed in the environment from the fragmentation of larger plastic material into ever-smaller pieces (Arthur et al. 2009; Cole et al. 2011). Using similar ideas, Andrady (2011) described runoff as a “direct source” (sewage or storm water) whilst fragmentation of existing plastic debris was described as “indirect source” of microplastic to the environment.

Although using adjectives to categorize sources may be helpful, these terms introduce jargon without clearly identifying the actual sources and confl sources with the pathway by which microplastic enter habitats, which may in turn confuse scientists, public, industry and government. In this chapter, I argue that these problems can be overcome if we choose alternative terms for sources that identify the place, person, company, or product where the microplastic originates and use separate terms to describe the pathways of microplastic from its source to a habitat.

Based upon our current understanding there are four types of sources (i) larger plastic litter, (ii) cleaning products (Zitko and Hanlon 1991; Gregory 1996; Derraik 2002); (iii) medicines; and (iv) textiles. For the latter, I have chosen to use a global case-study to illustrate how one can gain a more meaningful and scientifi understanding of the sources and pathways of microplastic through developing better programs of research and monitoring that integrate advances in forensics (e.g. vibrational spectroscopy to identify the shape and type of microplastic), logic and experimental design (i.e. making observations, developing explanatory models, testing explicit hypotheses about composition and spatial patterns; Underwood 1997) and statistics. Throughout the chapter, I have chosen to defi microplastic as micrometre-sized particles of plastic because this is consistent with previous work on this topic (Browne et al. 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2013; Costa et al. 2009; Claessens et al. 2011; Rochman et al. 2013; Van Cauwenberghe 2013) and the globally ratifi use of the prefi “micro” for measures of length under the International System of Units. Other authors have chosen to ignore the International System of Units defi of “micro” and have instead chosen to use <5 mm to defi microplastic, a philosophical discussion about which people should use is beyond the scope of this review.

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