Persistence of Plastic Litter in the Oceans

TitlePersistence of Plastic Litter in the Oceans
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2015
AuthorsAndrady, AL
EditorBergmann, M, Gutow, L, Klages, M
Book TitleMarine Anthropogenic Litter
Pagination57 - 72
PublisherSpringer International Publishing
ISBN Number978-3-319-16510-3

The increasing global production and use of plastics has led to an accumulation of enormous amounts of plastic litter in the world’s oceans. Characteristics such as low density, good mechanical properties and low cost allow for successful use of plastics in industries and everyday life but the high durability leads to persistence of the synthetic polymers in the marine environment where they cause harm to a great variety of organisms. In the diverse marine habitats, including beaches, the sea surface, the water column, and the seafloor, plastics are exposed to different environmental conditions that either accelerate or decelerate the physical, chemical and biological degradation of plastics. Degradation of plastics occurs primarily through solar UV-radiation induced photo oxidation reactions and is, thus, most intensive in photic environments such as the sea surface and on beaches. The rate of degradation is temperature-dependent resulting in considerable deceleration of the processes in seawater, which is a good heat sink. Below the photic zone in the water column, plastics degrade very slowly resulting in high persistence of plastic litter especially at the seafloor. Biological decomposition of plastics by microorganisms is negligible in the marine environment because the kinetics of biodegradation at sea is particularly slow and oxygen supply for these processes limited. Degradation of larger plastic items leads to the formation of abundant small microplastics. The transport of small particles to the seafloor and their deposition in the benthic environment is facilitated by the colonization of the material by fouling organisms, which increase the density of the particles and force them to sink.