Sources, transport, measurement and impact of nano and microplastics in urban watersheds

Abstract

The growing and pervasive presence of plastic pollution has attracted considerable interest in recent years, especially small (< 5 mm) plastic particles known as ‘microplastics’ (MPs). Their widespread presence may pose a threat to marine organisms globally. Most of the nano and microplastic (N&MP) pollution in marine environments is assumed to originate from land-based sources, but their sources, transport routes, and transformations are uncertain. Information on freshwater and terrestrial systems is lacking, and data on nanoplastic pollution are particularly sparse. The shortage of systematic studies of freshwater and terrestrial systems is a critical research gap because estimates of plastic release into these systems are much higher than those for oceans. As most plastic pollution originates in urban environments, studies of urban watersheds, particularly those with high population densities and industrial activities, are especially relevant with respect to source apportionment. Released plastic debris is transported in water, soil, and air. It can be exchanged between environmental compartments, adsorb toxic compounds, and ultimately be carried long distances, with potential to cause both physical and chemical harm to a multitude of species. Measurement challenges and a lack of standardized methods has slowed progress in determining the environmental prevalence and impacts of N&MPs. An overall aim of this review is to report the sources and abundances of N&MPs in urban watersheds. We focus on urban watersheds, and summarize monitoring methods and their limitations, knowing that identifying N&MPs and their urban/industrial sources is necessary to reduce their presence in all environments.

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Acknowledgements

This research was funded and conducted by the Center for Environmental Solutions and Emergency Response (CESER) of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Cincinnati, OH. This project was supported, in part, by appointments in the Research Participation Program at the Office of Research and Development (ORD), EPA administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (92431601) through an interagency agreement between the DOE and EPA. This manuscript was subjected to EPA internal reviews and quality assurance approval. The authors extend special thanks to Dr. M. Eileen Birch for her technical input and thorough review of the manuscript. The research results presented in this paper do not necessarily reflect the views of the Agency or its policy. Mention of trade names or products does not constitute endorsement or recommendation for use.

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Birch, Q.T., Potter, P.M., Pinto, P.X. et al. Sources, transport, measurement and impact of nano and microplastics in urban watersheds. Rev Environ Sci Biotechnol 19, 275–336 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11157-020-09529-x

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Keywords

  • Plastic waste
  • Polymer degradation
  • Macroplastic
  • Microplastic fate
  • Nanoplastic