Once believed to degrade into simple compounds, increasing evidence suggests plastics entering the environment are mechanically, photochemically and/or biologically degraded to the extent that they become imperceptible to the naked eye yet are not significantly reduced in total mass. Thus, more and smaller plastics particles, termed microplastics, reside in the environment and are now a contaminant category of concern. The current study tested the hypotheses that microplastics concentration would be higher in proximity to urban sources, and vary temporally in response to weather phenomena such as storm events. Triplicate surface water samples were collected approximately monthly between July and December 2011 from four estuarine tributaries within the Chesapeake Bay, USA using a manta net to capture appropriately sized microplastics (operationally defined as 0.3‒5.0 mm). Selected sites have watersheds with broadly divergent land use characteristics (e.g., proportion urban/suburban, agricultural and/or forested) and wide ranging population densities. Microplastics were found in all but one of 60 samples with concentrations ranging over three orders of magnitude (<1.0 to > 560 g/km2). Concentrations demonstrated statistically significant positive correlations with population density and proportion of urban/suburban development within watersheds. Greatest microplastics concentrations also occurred at three of four sites shortly after major rain events.
Lance T. Yonkos, Elizabeth A Friedel, Ana C. Perez-Reyes, Sutapa Ghosal and Courtney D Arthur, Environ. Sci. Technol., Just Accepted Manuscript, November 12, 2014