Photochemical dissolution of buoyant microplastics to dissolved organic carbon: Rates and microbial impacts.

Affiliation

State Key Laboratory of Estuarine and Coastal Research, East China Normal University, Shanghai, 200241, China. Electronic address: [Email]

Abstract

Trillions of plastic fragments are afloat at sea, yet they represent only 1-2% of the plastics entering the ocean annually. The fate of the missing plastic and its impact on marine life remains largely unknown. To address these unknowns, we irradiated post-consumer microplastics (polyethylene, PE; polypropylene, PP; and expanded polystyrene, EPS), standard PE, and plastic-fragments collected from the surface waters of the North Pacific Gyre under a solar simulator. We report that simulated sunlight can remove plastics from the sea surface. Simulated sunlight also fragmented, oxidized, and altered the color of the irradiated polymers. Dissolved organic carbon (DOC) is identified as a major byproduct of sunlight-driven plastic photodegradation. Rates of removal depended upon polymer chemistry with EPS degrading more rapidly than PP, and PE being the most photo-resistant polymer studied. The DOC released as most plastics photodegraded was readily utilized by marine bacteria. However, one sample of PE microplastics released organics or co-leachates that inhibited microbial growth. Thus, although sunlight may remove plastics from the ocean's surface, leachates formed during plastic photodegradation may have mixed impacts on ocean microbes and the food webs they support.

Keywords

Dissolved organic carbon,Marine debris,Microbial impact,Microplastics,Photochemistry,

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