To what extent are microplastics from the open ocean weathered?

It is necessary to better characterize plastic marine debris in order to understand its fate in the environment and interaction with organisms, the most common type of debris being made of polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP). In this work, plastic debris was collected in the North Atlantic sub-tropical gyre during the Expedition 7th Continent sea campaign and consisted mainly in PE. While the mechanisms of PE photodegradation and biodegradation in controlled laboratory conditions are well known, plastic weathering in the environment is not well understood. This is a difficult task to examine because debris comes from a variety of manufactured objects, the original compositions and properties of which vary considerably. A statistical approach was therefore used to compare four sample sets: reference PE, manufactured objects, mesoplastics (5–20 mm) and microplastics (0.3–5 mm). Infrared spectroscopy showed that the surface of all debris presented a higher oxidation state than the reference samples. Differential scanning calorimetry analysis revealed that the microplastics were more crystalline contrarily to the mesoplastics which were similar to references samples. Size exclusion chromatography showed that the molar mass decreased from the references to meso- and microplastics, revealing a clear degradation of the polymer chains. It was thus concluded that the morphology of marine microplastic was much altered and that an unambiguous shortening of the polymer chains took place even for this supposedly robust and inert polymer.

Alexandra ter Halle, Lucie Ladirat, Marion Martignac, Anne Françoise Mingotaud, Olivier Boyron, Emile Perez, Environmental Pollution, Volume 227, August 2017, Pages 167–174

The article

Polyethylene bio-degradation by caterpillars of the wax moth Galleria mellonella

Plastics are synthetic polymers derived from fossil oil and largely resistant to biodegradation. Polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) represent ∼92% of total plastic production. PE is largely utilized in packaging, representing ∼40% of total demand for plastic products ( with over a trillion plastic bags used every year [1] . Plastic production has increased exponentially in the past 50 years ( Figure S1 A in Supplemental Information , published with this article online). In the 27 EU countries plus Norway and Switzerland up to 38% of plastic is discarded in landfills, with the rest utilized for recycling (26%) and energy recovery (36%) via combustion (, carrying a heavy environmental impact. Therefore, new solutions for plastic degradation are urgently needed. We report the fast bio-degradation of PE by larvae of the wax moth Galleria mellonella, producing ethylene glycol.

Paolo Bombelli, Christopher J. Howe, Federica Bertocchini, Current Biology, Volume 27, Issue 8, pR292–R293, 24 April 2017

The article 

Degradation of Various Plastics in the Environment

It is very important to understand the interaction between plastics and environment in ambient conditions. The plastics degrade because of this interaction and often their surface properties change resulting in the creation of new functional groups. The plastics after this change continue to interact with the environment and biota. It is a dynamic situation with continuous changing parameters. Polyethylene, polypropylene, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) degrade through the mechanisms of photo-, thermal, and biodegradation. The three polymers degrade with different rates and different pathways. Under normal conditions, photo- and thermal degradation are similar. For polyethylene, photo-degradation results in sharper peaks in the bands which represent ketones, esters, acids, etc. on their infrared spectrum. The same is true for poly propylene but this polymer is more resistant to photo-degradation. The photo-oxidation of PET involves the formation of hydroperoxide species through oxidation of the CH2 groups adjacent to the ester linkages and the hydroperoxides species involving the formation of photoproducts through several pathways. For the three polymers, interaction with microbes and formation of biofilms are different. Generally, biodegradation results in the decrease of carbonyl indices if the sample has already been photo-degraded by exposure to UV. Studies with environmental samples agree with these findings but the degradation of plastics is very subjective to the local environmental conditions that are usually a combination of those simulated in laboratory conditions. For example, some studies suggested that fragmentation of plastic sheet by solar radiation can occur within months to a couple of years on beaches, whereas PET bottles stay intact over 15 years on sea bottoms.

Kalliopi N. Fotopoulou, Hrissi K. Karapanagioti, Chapter, Part of the series The Handbook of Environmental Chemistry, pp 1-22, Date: 13 April 2017

The chapter

The presence of microplastics in commercial salts from different countries

The occurrence of microplastics (MPs) in saltwater bodies is relatively well studied, but nothing is known about their presence in most of the commercial salts that are widely consumed by humans across the globe. Here, we extracted MP-like particles larger than 149 μm from 17 salt brands originating from 8 different countries followed by the identification of their polymer composition using micro-Raman spectroscopy. Microplastics were absent in one brand while others contained between 1 to 10 MPs/Kg of salt. Out of the 72 extracted particles, 41.6% were plastic polymers, 23.6% were pigments, 5.50% were amorphous carbon, and 29.1% remained unidentified. The particle size (mean ± SD) was 515 ± 171 μm. The most common plastic polymers were polypropylene (40.0%) and polyethylene (33.3%). Fragments were the primary form of MPs (63.8%) followed by filaments (25.6%) and films (10.6%). According to our results, the low level of anthropogenic particles intake from the salts (maximum 37 particles per individual per annum) warrants negligible health impacts. However, to better understand the health risks associated with salt consumption, further development in extraction protocols are needed to isolate anthropogenic particles smaller than 149 μm.

Ali Karami, Abolfazl Golieskardi, Cheng Keong Choo, Vincent Larat, Tamara S. Gallowa & Babak Salamatinia, Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 46173 (2017)

The article

Toxic effects of polyethylene terephthalate microparticles and Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate on the calanoid copepod, Parvocalanus crassirostris

Large amounts of plastic end up in the oceans every year where they fragment into microplastics over time. During this process, microplastics and their associated plasticizers become available for ingestion by different organisms. This study assessed the effects of microplastics (Polyethylene terephthalate; PET) and one plasticizer (Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate; DEHP) on mortality, productivity, population sizes and gene expression of the calanoid copepod Parvocalanus crassirostris. Copepods were exposed to DEHP for 48 h to assess toxicity. Adults were very healthy following chemical exposure (up to 5120 µg L−1), whereas nauplii were severely affected at very low concentrations (48 h LC50value of 1.04 ng L−1). Adults exposed to sub-lethal concentrations of DEHP (0.1–0.3 µg L−1) or microplastics (10,000–80,000 particles mL−1) exhibited substantial reductions in egg production. Populations were exposed to either microplastics or DEHP for 6 days with 18 days of recovery or for 24 days. Populations exposed to microplastics for 24 days significantly depleted in population size (60±4.1%, p<0.001) relative to controls, whilst populations exposed for only 6 days (with 18 days of recovery) experienced less severe depletions (75±6.0% of control, p<0.05). Populations exposed to DEHP, however, exhibited no recovery and both treatments (6 and 24 days) yielded the same average population size at the termination of the experiment (59±4.9% and 59±3.4% compared to control; p<0.001). These results suggest that DEHP may induce reproductive disorders that can be inherited by subsequent generations. Histone 3 (H3) was significantly (p<0.05) upregulated in both plastic and DEHP treatments after 6 days of exposure, but not after 18 days of recovery. Hsp70-like expression showed to be unresponsive to either DEHP or microplastic exposure. Clearly, microplastics and plasticizers pose a serious threat to zooplankton and potentially to higher trophic levels.

Franz M. Heindler, Fahad Alajmi, Roger Huerlimann, Chaoshu Zeng, Stephen J. Newman, George Vamvounis, Lynne van Herwerden, Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety, Volume 141, July 2017, Pages 298–305

The article

Pollutant content in marine debris and characterization by thermal decomposition

Marine debris (MDs) produces a wide variety of negative environmental, economic, safety, health and cultural impacts. Most marine litter has a very low decomposition rate (plastics), leading to a gradual accumulation in the coastal and marine environment. Characterization of the MDs has been done in terms of their pollutant content: PAHs, ClBzs, ClPhs, BrPhs, PCDD/Fs and PCBs. The results show that MDs is not a very contaminated waste. Also, thermal decomposition of MDs materials has been studied in a thermobalance at different atmospheres and heating rates. Below 400–500 K, the atmosphere does not affect the thermal degradation of the mentioned waste. However, at temperatures between 500 and 800 K the presence of oxygen accelerates the decomposition. Also, a kinetic model is proposed for the combustion of the MDs, and the decomposition is compared with that of their main constituents, i.e., polyethylene (PE), polystyrene (PS), polypropylene (PP), nylon and polyethylene-terephthalate (PET).

M.E. Iñiguez, J.A. Conesa, A. Fullana, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Volume 117, Issues 1–2, 15 April 2017, Pages 359–365

The article

Influence of environmental and anthropogenic factors on the composition, concentration and spatial distribution of microplastics: A case study of the Bay of Brest (Brittany, France)

The concentration and spatial distribution of microplastics in the Bay of Brest (Brittany, France) was investigated in two surveys. Surface water and sediment were sampled at nine locations in areas characterized by contrasting anthropic pressures, riverine influences or water mixing. Microplastics were categorized by their polymer type and size class. Microplastic contamination in surface water and sediment was dominated by polyethylene fragments (PE, 53–67%) followed by polypropylene (PP, 16–30%) and polystyrene (PS, 16–17%) microparticles. The presence of buoyant microplastics (PE, PP and PS) in sediment suggests the existence of physical and/or biological processes leading to vertical transfer of lightweight microplastics in the bay. In sediment (upper 5 cm), the percentage of particles identified by Raman micro-spectroscopy was lower (41%) than in surface water (79%) and may explain the apparent low concentration observed in this matrix (0.97 ± 2.08 MP kg−1 dry sediment). Mean microplastic concentration was 0.24 ± 0.35 MP m−3 in surface water. We suggest that the observed spatial MP distribution is related to proximity to urbanized areas and to hydrodynamics in the bay. A particle dispersal model was used to study the influence of hydrodynamics on surface microplastic distribution. The outputs of the model showed the presence of a transitional convergence zone in the centre of the bay during flood tide, where floating debris coming from the northern and southern parts of the bay tends to accumulate before being expelled from the bay. Further modelling work and observations integrating (i) the complex vertical motion of microplastics, and (ii) their point sources is required to better understand the fate of microplastics in such a complex coastal ecosystem.

L. Frère, I. Paul-Pont, E. Rinnert, S. Petton, J. Jaffré, I. Bihannic, P. Soudant, C. Lambert, A. Huvet, Environmental Pollution, Volume 225, June 2017, Pages 211–222

The article