Biodegradable plastic bags on the seafloor: A future threat for seagrass meadows?

Marine plastic litter is a global concern. Carrier bags manufactured from non-biodegradable polymers constitute a large component of this litter. Because of their adverse impact on marine life, non-biodegradable bags have recently been replaced by biodegradable ones. However, growing evidence shows that these latter are not readily degradable in marine sediments and can alter benthic assemblages. The potential impact of biodegradable bags on seagrasses inhabiting sandy bottoms, which are the most widespread and productive ecosystems of the coastal zones, has been ignored. Mesocosm experiments were conducted to assess the effect of a commercialized biodegradable bag on a common seagrass species of the Mediterranean, Cymodocea nodosa, both at the level of individual plant (clonal growth) and of plant community (plant-plant relationships), under three culture regimes (plant alone, in combination with a neighbour of the same species or of the co-existing seagrass Zostera noltei) simulating different natural conditions (bare substrate, monospecific meadows or mixed meadows). The bag behaviour in marine sediment and sediment physical/chemical variables were also examined. After six months of sediment exposure, the bag retained considerable mass (85% initial weight) and reduced sediment pore-water oxygen concentration and pH. In the presence of bag, C. nodosa root spread and vegetative recruitment increased compared to controls, both intra- and interspecific interactions shifted from neutral to competitive, and the growth form changed from guerrilla (loosely arranged group of widely spaced ramets) to phalanx form (compact structure of closed spaced ramets) but only with Z. noltei. These findings suggest that biodegradable bags altering sediment geochemistry could promote the spatial segregation of seagrass clones and influence species coexistence.

Elena Balestri, Virginia Menicagli, Flavia Vallerini, Claudio Lardicci, Science of The Total Environment, Volumes 605–606, 15 December 2017, Pages 755–763

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