PLASTIC FALLOUT IN THE OCEANS | May 10, 2004 Issue - Vol. 82 Issue 19 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 82 Issue 19 | p. 10 | News of The Week
Issue Date: May 10, 2004

PLASTIC FALLOUT IN THE OCEANS

Microscopic polymer bits are accumulating in marine environments
Department: Science & Technology
FLOTSAM
Lab experiments show that marine animals consume microscopic bits of plastic, as seen here in the digestive tract of an amphipod.
Credit: © Science 2004
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FLOTSAM
Lab experiments show that marine animals consume microscopic bits of plastic, as seen here in the digestive tract of an amphipod.
Credit: © Science 2004

A first-of-its-kind environmental survey has found that plastic debris around the globe can erode away and end up as microscopic granular or fiberlike fragments, and that these fragments have been steadily accumulating in the oceans [Science, 304, 838 (2004)]. The toxicity or other consequences of this buildup of plastic fragments are unknown.

A research team led by marine ecologist Richard C. Thompson of the University of Plymouth, in England, examined sediments from beaches and estuaries along England’s southwest coast. The team also examined water samples collected since the 1960s as part of a survey of plankton in the North Atlantic.

The scientists separated out brightly colored or unusual-looking microscopic bits from the samples and used infrared spectroscopy to identify nine polymers, including nylon, polyester, polyethylene, and polyvinyl alcohol. Lab experiments by the team have shown that barnacles, lugworms, and amphipods can ingest tiny plastic particles.

The fragments come from several sources, the researchers suggest. These include mechanical erosion of nondegradable plastic bottles and packaging, nondegradable parts of biodegradable plastics, and plastic pieces used as abrasives in cleaning agents.

The data from plankton samples indicate that the abundance of microscopic fragments has increased over time, with significantly more particles in samples after 1980. The increase corresponds to the growth in world production of synthetic polymers, Thompson notes. The researchers are working to establish the possible environmental impact of the newfound plastic debris, he says.

“Clearly, there is a challenge here to all of us to dispose of plastics properly and, wherever possible, to reuse or recycle plastic items,” Thompson tells C&EN.

 
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