Variability in the Composition of Floating Microplastics by Region and in Time

Jessica Leigh Donohue1, Katherine Pavlekovsky1, Theophilos Collins1, Anthony L Andrady2, Giora K Proskurowski3 and Kara L Lavender Law1, (1)Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA, United States, (2)North Carolina State University, Chemical Engineering, Raleigh, NC, United States, (3)University of Washington, Seattle, WA, United States
Floating microplastics have been documented in all the subtropical oceans and in many regional seas, yet their origin and weathering history are largely unknown. To identify potential indicators of sources of microplastic debris and changes in input over time, we analyzed nearly 3,000 plastic particles collected using a surface-towing plankton net between 1991 and 2014, collected in the North Pacific subtropical gyre, in the Mediterranean Sea, and across the western North Atlantic basin including the subtropical gyre and coastal locations near urban areas. For each particle we analyzed particle form, size (longest dimension and 2-D surface area), mass, color characteristics and polymer type. We hypothesize that regional differences in average or median particle mass and size are a relative indicator of age (time of exposure), where accumulation zones that retain particles for long periods of time have statistically smaller fragments compared to regions closer to presumed sources. Differences in particle form (i.e., fragment, pellet, foam, line/fiber, film) might also reflect proximity to sources as well as form-dependent removal mechanisms such as density increase and sinking (Ryan 2015). Finally, changes in particle composition over time in subtropical gyre reservoirs could provide clues about changes in input as well as mechanisms and time scale of removal. Understanding the inputs, reservoirs, and sinks of open ocean microplastics is a necessary first step to evaluating their risks and impacts to marine life.
Ryan, P., 2015. Does size and buoyancy affect the long-distance transport of floating debris? Environ. Res. Lett. 10 084019.