, Volume 220, Issue 1-4, pp 365-372

Distribution and Degradation of Fresh Water Plastic Particles Along the Beaches of Lake Huron, Canada

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Abstract

Resistivity of plastic litter to chemical weathering, mechanical erosion, and biological degradation poses a critical environmental threat. Plastic debris has increased in abundance over the past several decades along shorelines and at sea, where organisms mistake small particles including plastic pellets as a potential food supply. These pellets have been shown to adsorb persistent organic pollutants such as PCBs, which may endanger the organism and become ingested higher in the food chain. Although several studies have been conducted to determine the amount and effects of plastics pollution in marine environments, relatively little is known concerning fresh water plastics pollution. This study represents the first detailed examination of the distribution, types, and physical and chemical degradation processes of plastic particles in a fresh water setting. In conducting field surveys along the shoreline of Lake Huron, Canada, we were able to ascertain that the total number of pellets over multiple sampling localities comprise 94% of plastic debris. The majority of the pellets were found proximal to an industrial sector along the southeastern margin of the lake and their abundance steadily decreased northward, following the dominant lake current patterns. Laboratory analyses using Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) and scanning electron microscopy indicate predominant mechanical abrasion textures, including grooves, gauges, pits, and flakes, and less common chemical weathering features such as linear and crescentic fractures that developed from shrinkage during subaerial exposure. The predominant type of plastic, polyethylene, appears to be much more resistant to chemical weathering than polypropylene, as indicated by oxidation peaks on FTIR spectra suggesting that polypropylene degrades more readily under natural conditions on freshwater beaches.