Estimation of the Environmental Load of High- and Low-Density Polyethylene From South Korea Using a Mass Balance Approach

The accumulation of marine plastic debris is one of the main emerging environmental issues of the twenty first century. Numerous studies in recent decades have reported the level of plastic particles on the beaches and in oceans worldwide. However, it is still unclear how much plastic debris remains in the marine environment because the sampling methods for identifying and quantifying plastics from the environment have not been standardized; moreover, the methods are not guaranteed to find all of the plastics that do remain. The level of identified marine plastic debris may explain only the small portion of remaining plastics. To perform a quantitative estimation of remaining plastics, a mass balance analysis was performed for high- and low-density PE within the borders of South Korea during 1995–2012. Disposal methods such as incineration, land disposal, and recycling accounted for only approximately 40 % of PE use, whereas 60 % remained unaccounted for. The total unaccounted mass of high- and low-density PE to the marine environment during the evaluation period was 28 million tons. The corresponding contribution to marine plastic debris would be approximately 25,000 tons and 70 g km−2 of the world oceans assuming that the fraction entering the marine environment is 0.001 and that the degradation half-life is 50 years in seawater. Because the observed concentrations of plastics worldwide were much lower than the range expected by extrapolation from this mass balance study, it is considered that there probably is still a huge mass of unidentified plastic debris. Further research is therefore needed to fill this gap between the mass balance approximation and the identified marine plastics including a better estimation of the mass flux to the marine environment.

Mijin Kim, Seunghun Hyun, Jung-Hwan Kwon, Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, Vol. 69 (3), p. 367-373, October 2015

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