Microplastics in the Marine Environment: Sources, Consequences and Solutions
Microplastics are small fragments of plastic debris that have accumulated in the environment on a global scale. They originate from the direct release of particles of plastic and as a consequence of the fragmentation of larger items. Microplastics are widespread in marine habitats from the poles to the equator; from the sea surface and shoreline to the deep sea. They are ingested by a range of organisms including commercially important fish and shellfish and in some populations the incidence of ingestion is extensive. Laboratory studies indicate that ingestion could cause harmful toxicological and/or physical effects. However, our understanding of the relative importance of these effects in natural populations is very limited. Looking to the future it seems inevitable that the quantity of microplastic will increase in the environment, since even if we could stop new items of debris entering the ocean, fragmentation of the items already present would continue for years to come. The term microplastics has only been in popular usage for a decade and while many questions remain about the extent to which they could have harmful effects, the solutions to reducing this contamination are at hand. There are considerable synergies to be achieved by designing plastic items for both their lifetime in service and their efficient end-of-life recyclability, since capturing waste via recycling will reduce usage of non-renewable oil and gas used in the production of new plastics and at the same time reduce the accumulation of waste in managed facilities such as land fill as well as in the natural environment.
KeywordsMicroplastic Microbeads Accumulation Impact Toxicology Solution
Our understanding about microplastics has advanced considerably over the last decade, but is still in its infancy and our knowledge of the relative importance of various sources, spatial trends in distribution and abundance, temporal trends, or effects on biota are still quite limited (Law and Thompson 2014). Initial work describing microplastics indicated a small increase in the abundance of this debris over time and that in laboratory conditions a range of invertebrates would ingest the material (Thompson et al. 2004). Subsequent work has described the range of habitats (Law et al. 2010; Browne et al. 2011; Van Cauwenberghe et al. 2013) and organisms (Graham and Thompson 2009; Murray and Cowie 2011; van Franeker et al. 2011; Lusher et al. 2013) that are contaminated by microplastic in the environment. These early studies have been pioneering in nature providing proof of concept, but are difficult to use as a base line because of the inevitable lack of consistency in methods. In parallel, there have been laboratory studies which have exposed organisms to microplastics in order to determine the potential for this debris to result in harm to the creatures that encounter it in the natural environment (Browne et al. 2008, 2013; Rochman et al. 2013; Wright et al. 2013a). The main route of concern is currently as a consequence of ingestion, which could lead to physical (Wright 2014) and toxicological effects on biota (Teuten et al. 2007; Browne et al. 2008). Plastics are known to sorb persistent organic pollutants (Mato et al. 2001; Ogata et al. 2009; Teuten et al. 2009) and metals (Holmes et al. 2012) from seawater and organic pollutants can become orders of magnitude more concentrated on the surface of the plastic than in the surrounding water (Mato et al. 2001; Ogata et al. 2009; Teuten et al. 2009). There is evidence from laboratory studies that these chemicals can be transferred from plastics to organisms upon ingestion (Teuten et al. 2009) and that this can result in harm (Browne et al. 2013; Rochman et al. 2013; Wright et al. 2013a). The potential for transfer varies according to the specific combination of plastic and contaminant with some polymers such as polyethylene having considerable potential for transport (Bakir et al. 2012). Subsequent desorption will also vary according to physiological conditions upon ingestion with the presence of gut surfactants and increased temperature leading to increased desorption (Teuten et al. 2007; Bakir et al. 2012). However, modeling studies suggest that when compared to the transport of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) by other pathways such as respiration and food that plastics are not likely to be a major vector in the transport of POPs from seawater to organisms (Gouin et al. 2011; Koelmans et al. 2013). A second toxicological issue is that some plastics contain chemical additives that are potentially harmful (Rochman 2015). These additives can be present in concentrations much greater than is likely to result from sorption of POPs and there is concern that additives might be released to organisms upon ingestion (Oehlmann et al. 2009; Thompson et al. 2009; Rochman and Browne 2013). There is evidence that such chemicals can be present, for example as leachates from landfill sites, in aquatic habitats at concentrations that are sufficient to cause harm (Oehlmann et al. 2009). There is also evidence that chemical additives can transfer from plastics to sea birds (Tanaka et al. 2013). However, it is not clear whether ingestion of plastics themselves could result in sufficient transfer of additive chemicals to cause harm. This would require experiments with plastics for which the composition of chemical constituents is known.
7.2 Definitions of Microplastics
When reported in 2004 the term microplastics was used to describe fragments of plastic around 20 µm in diameter. These were reported in intertidal and shallow subtidal sediments and in surface waters in northwestern Europe (Thompson et al. 2004; Fig. 7.1). Subsequent research showed that similar sized particles were present in shallow waters around Singapore (Ng and Obbard 2006). However, while these early reports referred to truly microscopic particles they did not give a specific definition of microplastic. In 2008, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) of the US hosted the first International Microplastics Workshop in Washington and as part of this meeting formulated a broader working definition to include all particles less than 5 mm in diameter (Arthur et al. 2009). Particles of this size (i.e. <5 mm) have been very widely reported including publications that considerably pre-dated the use of the term “microplastics” (Carpenter et al. 1972; Colton et al. 1974). There is still some debate over the most appropriate upper size bound to use in a formal definition of microplastics, with perhaps a more intuitive boundary following the SI classification of <1 mm. The European Union have followed the US and adopted a 5-mm upper bound for categorization of microplastics within the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD, Galgani et al. 2010). There is a similar lack of clarity when considering the lower size bound for a definition of microplastics. Operationally, this, by default, has been assumed to be the mesh size of the particular net or sieve used to separate the microplastic from the bulk medium of sediment or water column (see review by Hidalgo-Ruz et al. 2012). However, as a necessity of construction, collection devices with meshes in the sub-millimetre size range have a high ratio of net/sieve material compared to apertures and as a consequence they will trap particles much smaller than the size of the apertures/mesh size. Hence, it is not sensible to define the minimum size captured on the basis of the mesh used to collect the sample. Within the EU MSFD a pragmatic approach has been taken based on that used by researchers sampling benthic infauna and sediments with sieves (e.g. Wentworth graduated sieves), where the organisms ‘retained’ by a particular sieve are reported. In summary, there is no universally agreed definition of microplastic size, but most workers consider microplastic to be particles of plastic <5 mm in size. There is little consensus on the lower size bound.
While defining parameters is essential for consistent monitoring, in the wider context of marine debris and concerns about the potential harmful effects of microplastic it may actually be unwise to specify the size definitions precisely at the present time. Differently sized particles are likely to have differing effects. For example, smaller particles could have consequences that are fundamentally different to larger particles, since the particles themselves can accumulate in tissues and/or may cause disruption of physiological processes (Browne et al. 2008; Wright et al. 2013c). From a monitoring science, rather than a curiosity-driven perspective, a logical rationale for sampling is to consider abundance in relation to any associated impacts. Since our understanding of the potential impacts of microplastics is currently in its infancy it could, for the time being, be unwise to set a formal limit to lower size boundary and, until there is better understanding about which types/sizes of microplastics are of concern a sensible strategy could be to collect from the bulk medium any particles <5 mm and then quantify microplastics according to size categories.
7.3 Spatial and Temporal Patterns in the Abundance of Microplastics
Our understanding about the distribution and the factors affecting the distribution of microplastics in the oceans is limited and much of the sampling to date has been opportunistic utilizing existing research programs (research cruises, educational programs, routine plankton monitoring) to collect material. There has also been some targeted microplastic sampling and attempts to make formal comparisons in the abundance of microplastics between locations (Browne et al. 2010, 2011). Existing data indicate that microplastics are widely distributed in surface waters, in shallow waters (Browne et al. 2011; Hidalgo-Ruz et al. 2012), in deep-sea sediments (Van Cauwenberghe et al. 2013) and in the digestive tract of a range of organisms living within these habitats (Lusher 2015). With the exception of heavily contaminated areas such as shipbreaking yards (Reddy et al. 2006), the abundance of microplastics would appear to be relatively low in surface waters and sediments (see Lusher 2015). By volume it is apparent, however, that sediments are more contaminated than surface waters.
Only a handful of studies have considered temporal patterns in the abundance of microplastics. Thompson et al. (2004) in the northeast Atlantic and Goldstein et al. (2012) in the North Pacific both report on an increase in abundance over time. While examination of a very extensive data set by Law et al. (2010) revealed no clear temporal trend in abundance over two decades of sampling in the North Atlantic, Thompson et al. (2004) used samples collected by the continuous plankton recorder to examine temporal changes in surface waters to the north of Scotland and showed a significant increase in the abundance of microplastics when comparing between the 1960s and 1970s with the 1980s and 1990s. Goldstein et al. (2012) compared abundance in heavily contaminated areas of the Pacific and also recorded and increase in abundance over time. However, sampling methodology differed between sampling dates making it difficult to clearly identify the underlying trends in microplastic abundance (Goldstein et al. 2012). It is clear that the abundance of microplastic is likely to vary considerably in space and in time, but we have little understanding of the associated scales of variation, neither do we have a clear understanding about the relative importance of, or interactions among, the various factors affecting distribution or about which, if any, types of microplastic might be hazardous. Such uncertainty considerably limits our ability to implement monitoring programs necessary to assess changes in abundance over time and in relation to regulatory measures.
7.4 Anticipated Future Trends
From a personal perspective my interest in what we now describe as microplastics started in the in the mid-1990s. I was well aware that over the previous decades we had shifted to a very disposable society with considerable generation of waste. It was apparent that waste items including plastics were entering the oceans on a daily basis. These plastic items were resistant to degradation and I became curious as to where all the end-of-life single-use plastic items were accumulating in the natural environment. At that time, as is still largely the case, there was a distinct lack of data indicating any increasing temporal trends in the abundance of plastic debris and I considered that a substantial proportion may be accumulating as fragments, which were being missed by routine litter surveys (Fig. 7.6). These observations inspired the research leading to my paper in 2004 entitled ‘Lost at sea where is all the plastic?’. In this paper I suggested that one reason we were not seeing a temporal trend was because the smaller fragments that were forming from larger items were not being recorded in routine monitoring. Ten years on it seems likely that accumulation of microplastics represents an important sink where the fragments of larger items reside in a size range that has seldom been monitored. However, while widely distributed in the marine environment the densities of microplastic recorded in the habitats studied to date are relatively low and indicate that if microplastics are indeed the ultimate end-product of our disposable society then some of the major sinks of this material are yet to be discovered. Many consider the deep sea likely to be a major sink and there is growing evidence that substantial quantities of macroplastic are accumulating there (Galgani et al. 1996). An initial survey suggested abundance in the deep sea may be lower than in shallow water habitats (Van Cauwenberghe et al. 2013), however using different approaches to record fibres there is recent evidence that the deep sea could be a substantial sink for microplastics (Woodall et al. 2014). Clearly more investigation is required to confirm the relative importance of the deep sea as a sink for microplastics, to understand their long-term fate in the deep sea and the extent of any subsequent deterioration or biodegradation over extended timescales (Zettler et al. 2013).
It is evident that microplastic pieces now contaminate marine habitats worldwide. This debris is ingested by a wide range of organisms and for some species a major proportion of the population contains plastic fragments. There are concerns about the physical and toxicological harm that ingesting this debris might cause and laboratory experiments have demonstrated harmful effects. However, the relative importance of plastics as a vector for chemical transport or their importance as an agent causing physical harm to organisms in the natural environment are much less clear (Koelmans 2015).
Our understanding of potential future trends in the abundance of microplastic debris is limited. While it seems inevitable that the quantities of microplastic will increase in the environment as a consequence of further direct introductions of primary microplastic and fragmentation of larger items the likely trajectories and potential sinks or hot spots of accumulation are not clear. In conclusion, 10 years after the term microplastic widely entered the published literature and after a considerable body of research, there remain more questions than answers about the accumulation and consequences of microplastic contamination in the environment (Law and Thompson 2014). Ultimately, however, there is broad recognition that plastic debris does not belong in the ocean. It is also clear that the numerous societal benefits that are derived from every-day-use of plastics can be achieved without the need for emissions of plastic waste to the environment. Since 8 % of the global oil production is currently used to make plastic items it seems clear that we urgently need to change the way we produce, use and dispose of plastic items. There is also a growing realization that the solution to two major environmental problems, our non-sustainable use of fossil carbon and accumulation of debris lie in utilizing end-of-life plastics as a raw material for new production. Such principles are central to the philosophy of developing a more circular economy and some believe that rethinking our use of plastic materials in line with this philosophy has considerable potential to bring much greater resource efficiency (European Commission 2012).
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