Beach environments are known to be conducive to fragmentation of plastic debris, and highly fragmented plastic particles can interact with smaller organisms. Even through stranded plastic debris may not interact directly with marine organisms, backwash processes may transport this debris back to coastal waters, where it may affect a wide range of marine life at different trophic levels. This study analysed the size distribution of stranded plastic debris (<10 mm) collected from eight coastal beaches in Guangdong Province, China. Polystyrene (PS) foams and fragments smaller than 7 mm were increasingly abundant in the smaller size classes, whereas resin pellets remained in their production sizes (∼3 mm). Microplastics (<5 mm) accounted for over 98% of the total plastic debris by abundance and 71% by weight, indicating that the plastic debris on these coastal beaches was highly fragmented and the majority of the plastic masses belonged to the microplastic size range. The observed size distributions of PS foams and fragments are believed to result from continued fragmentation. Previous studies found that the residence time of beached debris was less than one year on average, and no sign of plastic accumulation with depth in beach sediment was observed. Therefore, coastal beaches may represent a reservoir of highly fragmented and degraded microplastics that may be mobilised and returned to the sea during storm events. Further research on the dynamics and longevity of microplastics on beaches will help reveal the mass balance of microplastics on the shoreline and determine whether shorelines are sinks or sources of microplastics.
Lincoln Fok, Pui Kwan Cheung, Guangda Tang, Wai Chin Li, Environmental Pollution, Volume 220, Part A, January 2017, Pages 407–412