Skip to content

The Science of Microplastics in the World Ocean - Abstracts

An International Workshop to Formulate Next Steps in Understanding the Fate, Distribution, Impacts, and Technology Development Necessary to Push the Science

An Industrial View of the Global Plastics Problem

Ron Abbott, Sustainability Technical Manager, Chevron Phillips Chemical Company

Abstract:  Since the development of commercially viable polyethylene in the 1950’s, plastics have become an increasingly important packaging option worldwide.  It’s high strength, light weight, flexibility and low toxicity renders it an extraordinary material for packaging and for production of durable and non-durable goods.  As a result, this material is used universally for a wide range of applications.

Unfortunately, these materials are increasingly under environmental scrutiny.  One of today’s challenges is to capture value from post use materials, transitioning from the current linear economy to an efficient, sustainable circular approach by redirecting these valuable and irreplaceable materials from waste streams to recyclable objects and feedstock.

In this seminar, we will explore the innovations that have made synthetic polymers the material of choice for so many applications, the drivers behind the growth of this industry and the collaborative efforts that are underway to responsibly repurpose post use plastics.

Next-Generation Science for Microbial Biodegradation Standards for Biobased Plastics

Linda Amaral-Zettler is a Research Leader at the NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research in North Holland

Abstract:  New biotechnological developments allow us to interrogate microbial communities at much higher resolution and allow for both rapid assessments of community composition but also function, as well as metabolic potential. Standards for biodegradation in the marine environment are currently being reevaluated in light of recent scientific research that is highlighting the potential and demonstrated impacts of plastic marine debris on individual organisms up through entire ecosystems. Some of the recent findings that impact past efforts include the central role of temperature and salinity in shaping marine microbial communities that are capable of biodegradation in the marine setting. While research findings demonstrate that microbial communities differ and can be differentiated based on biogeography, what has not been explored is how their activity changes across different biogeographic zones with respect to their biodegradation potential. In order to better understand the environmental fate of plastic litter, is it important to perform basic research that compares community composition, function and degradation rates under different temperature regimes using both synthetic and natural microbial consortia. Applying modern-day approaches to systematically testing biodegradable alternatives to fossil-fuel based materials still in use will assist in decision-making that will preserve our environment while still contributing to the circular economy.

Degradation and Fragmentation of LDPE in Sea Water

Anthony Andrady, Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, North Carolina State University

Abstract:  Polyethylene is the most abundant variety of plastic in the floating stock of marine microplastics. While its mechanism of degradation during weathering in air and related gross fragmentation is well understood, the same are not clear for the polymer weathered in seawater.  This presentation will compare data on laboratory-accelerated weathering of low-density (LDPE) in air and artificial seawater media.  FTIR was used to probe the potential development of a highly-degraded surface layer on degradation of these samples. The absence of typical spectral signatures of oxidative degradation in LDPE samples exposed in sea water and the corresponding drastic differences in their change in mechanical properties during weathering, will be reviewed. Additional data on oxidation of the samples exposed in sea water based on surface analytical techniques suggest that substantial oxidation occurs bypassing the chemical steps associated with chain scission. The potential role of other oxidative species in irradiated sea water participating in the autoxidative reaction sequence will be discussed.

Microplastics in the Levant – a snapshot from an ocean desert

Dror Angel is an applied marine ecologist at the Department of Maritime Civilizations, Charney School of Marine Science at the University of Haifa, Israel

Abstract: The southeastern Mediterranean is a highly oligotrophic region, yet abundances of microplastics recorded in surface coastal waters are among the highest recorded worldwide, stimulating a quest to understand why and to assess the impact to marine biota and to humans. Many animals ingest these artificial particles and while some retain more microplastics than others, it is not clear whether their ingestion affects the wellbeing and survival of marine species. Observations and experiments conducted in this region will be presented and gaps in the field will be elaborated.

Micro and Nanoplastics – can we reduce their flux into the environment?

Dror Angel is an applied marine ecologist at the Department of Maritime Civilizations, Charney School of Marine Science at the University of Haifa, Israel

Abstract: Massive efforts have been invested in mapping the distributions and abundances of microplastics in the ocean, and in considering strategies to reduce the problem. Municipal wastewater has been identified as one of the major sources of microplastics, and most of this material is efficiently removed in the treatment process and concentrated in sewage sludge. The uncaptured micro- and nano-plastics enter the environment (waterways and/or the sea) with the treated effluent and an average wastewater treatment plant may emit as many as a billion particles on an annual basis. In the absence of regulation of micro and nanoplastics in wastewater effluents, this amounts to a substantial flux of particles that ultimately reach the ocean. The nutrient and microplastics-rich sewage sludge is regularly used as an agricultural fertilizer, thereby contributing much greater numbers (compared to the treated wastewater) of plastic particles to the environment, and eventually to the sea. Novel efforts to capture these particles in wastewater treatment plants will be described as part of a global effort to stem the tide.

Plastic Polymer Quest Using Pyrolysis GC-MS

Ashok Deshpande is a Research Chemist at the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center, James J. Howard Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sandy Hook, New Jersey

Abstract:  Microplastics are a cause for concern because their size range mimics the prey size ingested by the aquatic organisms and these ingested microplastics can be potentially transferred to the higher predators. As the different types of plastics can exert different toxicities, and as they adsorb different levels of chemical contaminants, understanding the nature of the microplastics is critical for monitoring of the quality of fisheries habitats and aquaculture facilities. We tested the utility of a novel method of pyrolysis GC-MS for the characterization of microplastics. We use a small piece of plastic sample, less than 1 milligram in weight, and place it in a narrow quartz tube. The quartz tube is placed in a platinum coil and it is heated to 750°C. The intense heat breaks down the plastic polymer chains into smaller fragment molecules. The pyrolysis mixture is transferred to and separated on a gas chromatographic column, and identified by using a mass spectrometer. The pyrolytic fragmentation patterns appear to be reproducible and unique to a given polymer types. Applications of pyrolysis GC-MS will be presented for a variety of plastic items as well as weathered plastic samples from the littoral and aquatic environments. The presentation will also include a brief description of benefits and limitations of pyrolysis GC-MS.

Microplastic Particle Analysis of Hudson River Surface Water Using Novel Flow-Through Imaging Raman Spectroscopy

Scott Gallager, Biology Department, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Abstract:  It is estimated that an average of 5-13 million MT of single-use plastic products enter the world’s ocean each year, degrade through photochemical and mechanical abrasion, and become what is known as microplastics (MP)- particulate plastics between 1 µm and 5 mm. This study provides an overview of the development of a flow-through particle sensor based on both particle microscopic imaging and Raman spectroscopy with results of a cruise along the entire Hudson River (the Battery to Albany) sampling surface water continuously. Most of the MPs were in the form of filaments 2 by 10 to 100 µm rather than particulates. A wide range of polymer types at the highest concentrations (> 104 L-1) were located near and just South of the Tappan Zee Bridge where the salt wedge drives upstream along the riverbed and fresh water flows downstream. Temperature-Salinity plots show that MPs were associated with density gradients between fresh surface water and salty bottom water regardless of polymer type or density. Some polymers (e.g., Polyacrylonitrile and Polyvinyl Chloride) were scattered in the northern sections of the river. These results point to the need to profile vertically to quantify MPs with respect to density gradients.

The search for the missing microplastics: how and where do microplastics get transported below the sea surface?

Jake Gebbie, Physical Oceanography Department, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Abstract:  Much attention has been focused on the surface accumulation of macro- and microplastics (MPs) in regions such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but the sea surface is estimated to contain only about 10%  of the total MP input to ocean. Ocean circulation, turbulence, and mixing can all act to push MPs out of the sea surface and into the abyss. Furthermore, chemical degradation and biological colonization of MPs are additional processes that can cause MPs to sink regardless of the movement of seawater. The third, vertical, dimension has been underemphasized due to a focus on the two-dimensional surface, and that these vertical processes may hold the key to finding the bulk of MPs in the ocean. This talk aims to serve as an overview of the connections between physical oceanography and microplastics.

Defining the baselines and standards for microplastics analyses in European waters!? Highlights and pitfalls of JPI-O BASEMAN

Gunnar Gerdts, Senior Scientist, Shelf Seas Systems Ecology (SSSE) – Marine Microbiology, Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) et al (the BASEMAN consortium)

Abstract: Since the middle of last century rapidly increasing global production of plastics has been accompanied by an accumulation of plastic litter in the marine environment. Dispersal by currents and winds does not diminish the persistence of plastic items which degrade and become fragmented over time. Together with micro-sized primary plastic litter from consumer products these degraded secondary micro-fragments lead to an increasing amount of small plastic particles (smaller than 5 mm), so called “microplastics”. The ubiquitous presence and massive accumulation of microplastics in marine habitats and the uptake of microplastics by various marine biota is now well recognized by scientists and authorities worldwide. A fundamental issue precluding assessment of the environmental risks arising from microplastics is the lack of standard operation protocols (SOP) for microplastics sampling and detection. Comparability of data on microplastics concentrations was (and still is) hampered by the huge variety of different methods applied, generating data of extremely different quality and resolution. JPI-O BASEMAN as one of four projects funded in the framework of the JPI-O pilot action “Ecological Aspects of Microplastics” aimed to overcome this problem by profound and detailed comparison and evaluation of all approaches from sampling to identification of microplastics in the marine environment. However, due to the increasing perception of microplastics as emerging pollutant(s) in the environment (not only marine), these approaches needed to be (and still need to be) harmonized with those developed (and applied) in freshwater and terrestrial sytems for a holistic understanding of the MP-pollution in interconnected ecosystems.

Towards the development and application of an environmental risk assessment framework for microplastic particles

Todd Gouin, Researcher and Consultant

Abstract: Plastic waste emissions to the environment and subsequent degradation into microplastic particles (MPs) represents a global concern given their potential to interact with biota. Current understanding of the potential impacts from MPs on aquatic and terrestrial population stability and ecosystem structure and function, however, is insufficient to fully assess these environmental risks. To address these issues, a multi-stakeholder discussion to identify and prioritize key knowledge gaps in assessing potential risks was sponsored by the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA), which involved 39 scientists from 8 countries with representatives from academia, industry, and government. Participants were asked to consider the following: Discuss the scientific merits and limitations of 1) applying a proposed conceptual environmental risk assessment (ERA) framework for MPs and 2) identify and prioritize major research needs in applying ERA tools for MPs. Multi-stakeholder consensus was obtained with respect to the interpretation of the current state-of-the-science related to effects and exposure to MPs, whereby it was suggested that environmental MPs are unlikely to represent a high risk. It should be noted, however, that participants also agreed that the quality and quantity of data requires substantial improvement before conclusions regarding the potential risks and impacts of MPs can be fully assessed. This presentation will summarize conclusions on research needs and outline a framework for an environmental risk assessment on MPs.

The use of Forensic Fibre Examinations for Microplastic Studies

Claire Gwinnett, Professor in Forensic and Environmental Science, Staffordshire University, UK

Abstract:  Forensic fibre examination has been a fundamental part of criminal investigations for over 50 years. In this time, many important questions have had to be asked of fibres in order to understand their potential source, their ability to shed from garments, their persistence and degradation and their prevalence in different environments, including water environments. Fibres retrieved from crime scenes are typically less than 5mm in size and are a mix of both synthetic and natural fibres which must be effectively screened and characterised to gain intelligence information. In addition to these questions, forensic fibre examinations must minimise and monitor contamination whilst providing both screening techniques and detailed morphological and chemical information about the samples. The analytical techniques available to the forensic fibre examiner can also be employed for microplastic analysis with additional benefits for the interpretation of microplastic particulates. The forensic fibre approach in analysing microfibres allows more reliable screening for microplastics and characterisation beyond polymer type. Features such as cross-sectional shape, width and the presence and absence of inclusions can allow fibres that fall within the same polymer type to be sub-categorised in order to fully understand the extent of possible sources of these fibres. Utilising a series of sequential analytical approaches to microplastic analysis allows greater differentiation between microplastic types and a more informed approach to identifying the source of the microplastic. This ‘source level’ information in forensic fibres examination is well established and has been scrutinised by the courts of law. This session will outline the forensic fibre approach and evaluate its use in microplastic work. The opportunities for knowledge cross-over between forensic fibre studies to environmental microfibre analysis and interpretation will also be discussed, including the creation of automated systems for the detection, quantification and characterisation of microplastics.

Summary of the NOAA Marine Debris Program and Research Priorities

Carlie Herring, Research Analyst for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program

Abstract:  The NOAA Marine Debris Program (MDP) is authorized by Congress to work on marine debris through the Marine Debris Act, which was signed into law in 2006 and amended in 2012 and 2018. The Act requires the program to “identify, determine sources of, assess, prevent, reduce, and remove marine debris and address the adverse impacts of marine debris on the economy of the United States, marine environment, and navigation safety.” This presentation will provide insight into marine debris issue from the perspective of a governmental agency. An overview of the NOAA Marine Debris Program will be presented, including the program structure, mandates we must follow, and collaborative efforts we have established with other governmental agencies. The remainder (and majority) of the presentation will focus on the NOAA MDP research priorities, research projects we are currently funding, and future funding opportunities and research directions.

Microplastic Research and Preventative Measures at the US Environmental Protection Agency

Kay T. Ho and Robert M. Burgess

Abstract:  This presentation will summarize microplastics-related research currently being performed at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  It will include research initiated by EPA Regions, exploratory research currently ongoing with micro/nanoplastics, and Regional and Office of Water initiatives underway to reduce marine litter and debris. In addition, it will outline proposed research by EPA’s Office of Research and Development scheduled to begin in FY2020.  Currently, the overall goal of Agency microplastic-related research is to develop or validate methods for the measurements of plastics in different environmental media (e.g., water, sediments, tissues). Future research may explore the adverse effects of microplastics on human and ecological endpoints.

Why Standards are Necessary

Brett Howard is a Director at the American Chemistry Council in the Regulatory and Technical Affairs division

Abstract: Plastic in the environment, particularly microplastics, have gained increased attention from regulatory bodies over the past few years. Some jurisdictions, like California, have passed laws requiring state regulators to develop standards and incorporate them into regulations. Standards bodies like ASTM and ISO have correspondingly created subcommittees to address these issues. This discussion will cover existing activities to develop standards and areas where they may provide the most benefit.

How can we use Lagrangian models to explore microplastic particle behavior and properties?

Mikael Kaandorp, Utrecht University, Netherlands

Abstract: Plastics entering the ocean face an unknown fate: how much of it will stay afloat, how quickly will it degrade, and how much of it will end up on the beach? In order to get a better understanding on the fate of these plastics, we aim to parametrize these different processes, and use data from in-situ measurements to inform us about the parameters by using an inverse modelling approach. As a test case, we implement parameterizations for beaching, fragmentation, sinking, and for various sources of microplastics in a Lagrangian particle tracking framework. We focus on the Mediterranean, for which data availability of microplastic concentration measurements is relatively high over the last decade. The goal is for this inverse modeling approach to lead to a better understanding of the main sources of microplastics, and the time scales on which the different sinks act. This will help us to understand why the measured microplastic concentrations in the surface waters are so low compared to the estimated plastic inputs.

Microplastic in Nature and Society: Science Advice for Policy by European Academies (SAPEA)

Bart Koelmans, Chair of the Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Group, Wageningen University

Abstract: What meaningful and robust scientific advice to government is possible on microplastic pollution based on the current scientific evidence base? The European Commissions’ Chief Science Advisors commissioned an Evidence Review on microplastic in nature and society, from SAPEA. SAPEA is the umbrella organisation representing all Europe’s national academies of sciences and is part of the European Commission’s Scientific Advice Mechanism. SAPEA provides independent scientific advice to European Commissioners to support their decision-making. A multidisciplinary group of 25 leading experts from Europe delivered an evidence review about ‘What the science says and does not say’ regarding microplastic. The review aimed to cover everything we know about microplastic from a natural sciences, a social sciences and a political sciences/regulatory context. This presentation will reflect on the outcomes of the review and on the process of policy advice.

Thought experiments to understand the impacts of microplastic on the (marine) environment.

Bart Koelmans, Chair of the Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Group, Wageningen University

Abstract: Nanoplastic, microplastic and plastic debris are complex and diverse, and so are food webs and environmental systems. In the early days of chemical risk assessment, chemicals were tested individually with single species. Because of the complexity inherent to chemicals mixtures and environmental systems, this evolved into higher tier approaches that were more true to the reality of nature. These approaches accounted for chemical mixture effects, interactions with non-chemical stressors, secondary food web interactions and systems stability behaviour. Such an evolution also is needed for plastic debris assessment frameworks, an evolution that may be accelerated by adopting theoretical concepts from other disciplines (including those from higher tier chemical risk assessment science), or by creating original new concepts where needed. In this presentation I would like to address this topic by providing examples of how thought experiments, theory, concepts and models might be used to speed up our understanding of the environmental impacts of plastic debris of all sizes.

Reviewing physiological effects of micro- and nanoplastic particles on water biota, the lack of quantitative data on them, and our efforts to provide them

Tanja Kögel , Research scientist at the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen

Abstract: Reported physiological effects of micro- and nanoplastics on water biota increase with higher concentrations, decreasing particle size and longer exposure time, and are influenced by particle condition, shape, polymer type, contaminant background, food availability, species, developmental stage and sex. Effects included reduced body growth, energy, population growth, feeding, movement and photosynthesis, increased growth, food consumption, neuro-, liver- or kidney pathology and intestinal damage, physiological or oxidative stress, inflammation, effects on the immune system, hormonal dysregulation, aberrant development, cell death, general toxicity and altered lipid metabolism.

This warrants effort to quantify small micro- and nanoparticles in the environment, biota and humans, followed by toxicity testing with realistic environmental conditions, to enable a risk assessment. Smaller microplastics below 10µm and nanoplastics have negative effects in the reviewed studies, but are unquantified in the environment. To development methods for such quantification, we work with a py-GC/MS-Orbitrap system, allowing for more sensitive and specific identification and quantification of plastic, as compared to monoquadruple systems. Furthermore, we work on extraction and size fractionation by cross-flow filtration of small plastic particles from biota.

Plastics as tracers to understand physical ocean processes

Kara Law Lavender, Research Professor, Sea Education Association

Abstract: Plastic debris in the ocean is a major environmental concern because of its potential impacts to wildlife and the ocean ecosystem. However, floating debris, including microplastics, can also serve as useful tracers to better understand physical ocean transport process from basin scales to the submesoscale. Sea Education Association’s decades-long data set on floating microplastic abundance has been important not only to document the less famous “North Atlantic garbage patch”, but also to reveal the large spatio-temporal variability resulting from the interplay of complex physical processes in the open ocean. Opportunities exist to utilize models on all scales to better understand the transport and fate of plastic debris, which are critical to quantifying wildlife exposure and risk.

Standards for Measurement Science of Microplastic Pollution

Jennifer M. Lynch, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Chemical Sciences Division, Hawaii Pacific University, Center for Marine Debris Research

Abstract: Standardization of chemical techniques to measure quantities of and characterize microplastic pollution is important and evolving.  As policies aimed at reducing microplastic pollution develop, such as single-use item bans, recycling changes, and water quality standards, the need grows for standards to accurately quantify and characterize polymers from complex environmental matrices.  The challenges include background contamination, a wide range of small-sized particles (1-5000 µm), expanding polymer diversity, challenging isolation from environmental matrices, rapidly evolving detection technology, and lacking polymer standards and reference materials.  On-going projects will be presented for sample preparation (isolation of microfibers from larval fish and microplastics from beach sand), polymer identification (4-step workflow for accurate and complete identification of multi-layer composites, benefits and limitations of uFTIR and uRaman for microfibers), and data reporting (include non-detects, quantities are better than frequency of occurrence, quantities best reported as particle count, size and mass).  NIST currently offers 25 Standard Reference Materials (SRMs) of five different polymers.  A 2018 survey highlighted the need for diverse SRMs specific for this research field.  NIST seeks further input during this workshop to design a plan for producing SRMs that will be most helpful.

Chemical and toxicological characterization of chemicals released from plastic polymers under ultraviolet light

Matthew MacLeod1, Berit Gewert1, Merle Plassmann1, Oskar Sandblom1, Christoph D. Rummel2, Hans Peter H. Arp3,4, Annika Jahnke2 and Beate I. Escher2,5

1 – Department of Environmental Science, Stockholm University, Sweden

2 – Department of Bioanalytical Ecotoxicology and Department of Cell Toxicology, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research-UFZ, Leipzig, Germany

3 – Department of Environmental Engineering, Norwegian Geotechnical Intsitute (NGI), Oslo, Norway

4 – Department of Chemistry, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Trondheim, Norway

5 – Center for Applied Geoscience, Eberhard Karls University Tuebingen, Tuebingen, Germany

Abstract: Plastic floating on the surface of the ocean is exposed to sunlight, oxidants, and physical stress, which leads to degradation of the plastic and the release of chemical compounds that are potentially hazardous. We have developed a laboratory protocol that simulates the exposure of plastic floating in the marine environment to ultraviolet (UV) light.  We focused our attention on chemical and toxicological characterization of chemicals released from pre-production plastic pellets (polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene and polyethylene terephthalate) with the intention to study chemicals that are cleaved from the polymer backbone under UV exposure.  We used non-target analysis of chemicals leeched to water with a Q Exactive Orbitrap HF mass spectrometer coupled to ultra-high-performance liquid chromatography to search for chain scission products from degradation of the plastic polymers.  We tentatively identified 22 degradation products, many of which are dicarboxylic acids that have also been reported as likely polymer degradation products by material chemists.  We studied the effects of leachates from the UV-weathered plastic pellets and two plastics obtained from electronic equipment as positive controls in cell-based bioassays that covered (1) cytotoxicity, (2) activation of metabolic enzymes via binding to the arylhydrocarbon receptor (AhR) and the peroxisome proliferator-activate receptor (PPARg), (3) specific, receptor-mediated effects (estrogenicity, ERa), and (4) adaptive response to oxidative stress (AREc32). We also tested a selection of mono- and dicarboxylic acids, some of which were identified as chain scission products of the polymers.  All plastic leachates activated the oxidative stress response, and polyethylene-specific effects on PPARg were observed that could be partially explained by dicarboxylic acids. However leachates from the low-additive pre-production plastic showed low effects that were often in the range of the blanks.

Plastics, sustainability, and the circular economy

Rachel A. Meidl, Fellow in energy and environment at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy

Abstract: The plastic waste debacle is at the forefront of every local, national, and international agenda and has gained political and regulatory traction with instruments such as bans, trade restrictions, and taxes. Ethics, social equity, and future risks to society have also become a staple in the plastics discourse as environmental issues and ecosystem impacts continue to influence the plastics pollution debate. Transforming the global plastic market requires a suite of solutions, from public policy interventions and corporate commitments to sustainability and financial incentives, as well as changes in human behavior. Governments at all levels can incentivize and encourage reuse and proper disposal while investing in infrastructure; support the development of novel chemical recycling technologies to recycle and recover more plastic chemistries, including low-quality, low-density, and mixed polymers; and introduce policies to shepherd these efforts. There is not one all-encompassing solution that reaches every sector and resolves the issue of plastic waste in the environment. Cooperative mechanisms throughout the entire supply chain that reflects the expertise, knowledge, and values of a wide range of stakeholders is paramount. And without the regulatory systems, infrastructure, and technology to collect, sort, process, recycle, recover, and redesign the wide array of plastic polymers on the market, and absent responsible and informed citizens to diligently dispose of their wastes, it doesn’t matter how much we reduce our consumption—plastics will remain a global issue.

Nanoplastics – from basics to analysis

Michaela Meyns,  Alfred-Wegener-Institute on Heligoland, Germany

Abstract: Current microplastic studies report a trend of size abundances towards the small micron range. Extrapolating these, we can expect even higher numbers in the nanometer range. Although there is a substantial body of research on other types of nanoparticle contaminants, understanding of the distribution of nanoplastics and their state in the environment is just at the beginning.

Based on their composition and size, nanoscale polymers bring along substantial challenges for extraction and analysis. This talk will wrap up the peculiarities of these small particles when compared to microplastics, state-of-the-art techniques for detection and give an outlook on emerging analysis methods.

Microplastic field science, supporting innovations and developing curriculum

Rachael Z. Miller, Founder of Rozalia Project for a Clean Ocean, Co-Inventor/CEO of Cora Ball and a National Geographic Explorer

Abstract: In June, Rozalia Project’s Rachael Miller teamed up with Staffordshire University’s Dr. Claire Gwinnett and her team, Ethan Edson of Manta Ray, Claudia Richardson of Patagonia and a crew of educators and photographers for the Hudson River Seafloor to the Sky, Mountains to the Sea Microplastic Research and Technology Expedition. During this expedition, the team sampled the air, soil and surface/water column for microplastic every three miles for the entire Hudson River from the shoreline, whitewater rafts, a dinghy and the 60’ sailing research vessel, American Promise. At the same time onboard American Promise, the crew tested innovations that support the advancement and accessibility of microplastic science. The last part of the expedition was dedicated to weaving the science into an inspiring education program focused on microplastic and microfiber pollution and the development of solutions. In this session, Rachael Miller will share the expedition’s methods, challenges and highlights.

Microplastics in the Ocean’s Interior

Tracy John Mincer, Florida Atlantic University where he holds a dual appointment at the Harriet Wilkes Honors College and the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute

Abstract: A material of immense utility and durability, plastic has integrated seamlessly into our everyday lives and into the marine environment. As buoyant polymer fragments degrade via photo-oxidation, wave action or interactions with marine biota, sub-millimeter sized particles are known to transport below the ocean surface. However, much is still unknown regarding the nature, abundance and distributions of these polymer particles in the water column. We analyzed particulate organic carbon (POC) samples collected via high-volume in-situ filtration at multiple depths spanning near-surface to abyssal depths from North Pacific and South Atlantic locations to determine plastic particle concentrations in terms of POC. High- and low-density microplastics of diverse polymer compositions, identified by micro-Raman or micro-Fourier transform Infrared spectrometry, were observed throughout the water column with the highest concentrations typically along density gradients. Although microplastic carbon concentrations were orders of magnitude lower than POC concentrations from the same subsamples, the incidence of microplastic particles were as high or higher than mean surface inventories of microplastics from the North Pacific “Garbage Patch” region on a volumetric basis. Altogether, our data suggest the interior of the ocean harbors a substantial amount of bioavailable plastic particles which could impact certain biota.

Harmonized Analysis of Microplastics by FTIR Spectroscopy and Imaging

Sebastian Primpke, Polymer Chemist, Alfred-Wegener-Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research

Abstract: The ubiquitous presence of small plastic particles and fibers (<5 mm) with in the aquatic environment is of growing concern for sciences and societies. Nowadays these types of litter have already been found in the remotes areas of the world including the Arctic and Antarctic regions. To determine the levels of contamination the analysis of samples by FTIR imaging provides a rapid identification via the automated analysis of complete filters. By using special designed databases, a harmonized analysis of MP contaminations in environmental compartments can be achieved. This harmonized approach was already successfully applied in studies on (deep) sea sediments, Arctic Sea Ice, melted Snow, treated waste water and surface waters in general and allowed a maximum of comparability of the results. In addition, current developments do not only allow the characterization and quantification of microplastic particles but also the identification of microfibers within one measurement. Further, all methods are available via the manufacturer independent software siMPle via the website With these method and tools, the necessary harmonization of microplastic research was further improved which is paving the pathway to the implementation of standardized operating protocols (SOP) in the future.

What is known and unknown about the effects of plastic pollution on wildlife

Chelsea Rochman, Wageningen University

Abstract: As a consequence of the global ubiquity of plastic pollution, scientists, decision-makers, and the public often ask whether macroplastics (>5mm) and microplastics (<5mm) have a realized ecological threat. In 2016, we conducted a systematic review of the literature and made a call for further research testing hypotheses about ecological effects. In the subsequent years, the amount of relevant research has risen tremendously. Here, we re-assessed the literature to determine the current weight of evidence about the effects of plastic pollution across all levels of biological organization. Our data spans marine, freshwater, and terrestrial environments. We extracted data from 139 lab and field studies testing 577 independent effects across a variety of taxa and with various types, sizes, and shapes of plastic. Overall, 59% of the tested effects were detected. Of these, 58% were due to microplastics and 42% were due to macroplastics. Of the effects that were not detected, 94% were from microplastics and 6% were from macroplastics. We found evidence that whether or not an effect is detected, as well as the severity and direction of the effect, is driven by dose, particle shape, polymer type, and particle size. Finally, we assessed the environmental relevancy of experimental studies by comparing the doses used in each exposure to the concentrations and sizes of microplastics found in the environment. We determined that only 17% of experimental studies used concentrations that have been found in nature, and that 80% of experimental studies dose with particles that fall below the size range of the majority of environmental sampling. Based on our analyses, there is no doubt that macroplastics are causing ecological effects. The effects of microplastics, however, are much more complex. Thus, we make a call for future work that recognizes the complexity of microplastics and designs tests to better understand how different types, sizes, shapes, doses, and exposure durations affect wildlife. We also call for more ecologically and environmentally relevant studies, particularly in freshwater and terrestrial environments.

Ecological aspects of microplastics: JPI Oceans aligns research across 16 countries

Isabelle Schulz, Policy officer at the JPI-Oceans office and for the German Marine Research Consortium (KDM)


The Joint Programming Initiative Healthy and Productive Seas and Oceans (JPI Oceans) is a pan-European intergovernmental platform, that strives to increase the impact of national investments in marine and maritime research and innovation. Within JPI Oceans member countries collaborate on joint actions to build critical mass and align activities in fields of societal relevance.

Since 2014, fifteen European countries and Brazil have committed 18,2 million Euro for research on the ecological aspects of microplastics in the marine environment under the framework of JPI Oceans. In an initial phase four projects were funded which focused on ecotoxicological effects of microplastics, weathering of plastics, and baselines and standards for microplastics analyses in European waters. In the second phase starting in 2020, five new projects will embark, conducting research on sources of microplastics, analytical methods for identifying smaller micro- and (nano-) plastics, ecological effects and distribution and abundance in marine systems and their effects.

Producing secondary nano- and microplastics by photooxidation and (or) mechanical abrasion

Won Joon Shim1,2, Young Kyoung Song1,2, Sang Hee Hong1,2, Soeun Eo1,2

1Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology, Geoje, Republic of Korea.
2Korea University of Science and Technology, Deajeon, Republic of Korea

Abstract: The secondary microplastic production by photochemical weathering is expected one of major input sources of microplastics in marine environments. Fragmentation process and rate of nano- and microplastic production, however, are largely unknown. Our laboratory accelerated UV weathering experiments and subsequent mechanical abrasion with sands showed that fragmentation occurred in relatively short exposure period. The number of microplastics produced was different among PE, PP and expanded PS with or without mechanical abrasion. Expanded PS was highly susceptible to UV as well as mechanical weathering due to the unique foamed structure compared to PE and PP. In additional only sunlight exposure experiment for 2 years, production of micro- and nanoparticles of expanded PS was confirmed. The abundance of produced particles increased by increasing sunlight exposure time, and the average size of fragmented particles were in range of 2.03-2.88 μm for microparticles and 138-189 nm for nanoparticles, respectively. The abundance of microparticles increased by decreasing size, but nanoparticles showed bimodal size distribution based on 100 or 80 nm. The estimated fragmentation rate was 2.6x108 particles/year·cm2 by sunlight exposure according to linear regression equation.

Hazardous chemicals in marine plastics and their threat to marine organisms

Shige TAKADA,  Laboratory of Organic Geochemistry, Tokyo University of Organic Geochemistry

Abstract: Plastic and microplastics in the ocean are ingested by various marine organisms. Marine plastics pose chemical threat to marine organisms because they contain variety of hazardous chemicals. Most of plastic products contain additives such as plasticizers, UV stabilizers, antioxidants, flame retardants to maintain their properties. Hydrophobic additives are still retained in marine plastics and microplastics.  Furthermore, plastics and microplastics sorb and accumulate persistent organic pollutants (POPs) from surrounding seawater due to their hydrophobic nature.  International Pellet Watch (IPW; has been demonstrating the accumulation of POPs in microplastics on beaches across the world. Transfer of hazardous chemicals from ingested plastics and their accumulation into tissue of marine organisms have been demonstarated by exposure experiments. Oily components in digestive fluid facilitate the leaching of hydrophobic chemicals from ingested plastics resulting in their transfer and accumulation in the tissue of marine organisms. Plastic-mediated exposure of chemicals should be compared with exposure through natural diet. Field observations conducted by our group and the others indicate that plastic mediated-exposure is significant for hydrophobic additives such as BDE209, whereas it is not always significant but substantial in some limited cases such as remote ecosystem. Furthermore, microplastic may affect remobilization and fate of legacy pollutants, due to their lower density. In Tokyo Bay, we found much higher amounts of polyethylene microplastics in bottom sediments than surface water.

Marine Litter: are there solutions to this global environmental challenge?

Richard Thompson, University of Plymouth, UK

Abstract: Plastic debris is widely distributed at the sea surface, on the sea bed and on shorelines. Nearly 700 species are known to encounter marine litter, with many reports of physical harm resulting from entanglement in and ingestion of plastic. At the same time it is very clear that plastic items bring many societal benefits.  Can these benefits be achieved without emissions of waste to the environment? Progress requires systemic changes in the way we produce, use and dispose of plastic. A key solution to two major environmental problems, our non-sustainable use of fossil carbon (to produce plastics) and the accumulation waste, lies in recycling end-of-life plastics into new products.

How long does plastic last in the environment?

Collin Ward, Department of Marine Chemistry & Geochemistry, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Abstract: Numerous international governmental agencies that steer policy assume that polystyrene persists in the environment for millennia. Here, we show that polystyrene is completely photochemically oxidized to carbon dioxide and partially photochemically oxidized to dissolved organic carbon. Lifetimes of complete and partial photochemical oxidation are estimated to occur on centennial and decadal time scales, respectively. These lifetimes are orders of magnitude faster than biological respiration of polystyrene and thus challenge the prevailing assumption that polystyrene persists in the environment for millennia. Additives disproportionately altered the relative susceptibility to complete and partial photochemical oxidation of polystyrene and accelerated breakdown by shifting light absorbance and reactivity to longer wavelengths. Polystyrene photochemical oxidation increased approximately 25% with a 10 °C increase in temperature, indicating that temperature is unlikely to be a primary driver of photochemical oxidation rates. Collectively, sunlight exposure appears to be a governing control of the environmental persistence of polystyrene, and thus, photochemical loss terms need to be included in mass balance studies on the environmental fate of polystyrene. The experimental framework presented herein should be applied to a diverse array of polymers and formulations to establish how general these results are for other plastics in the environment.

Examining the use of marine bivalves as indicators of microplastic pollution in the environment 

J. Evan Ward, Shiye Zhao, Bridget A. Holohan, Kayla M. Mladinich, Tyler W. Griffin, Jennifer Wozniak & Sandra E. Shumway

Abstract: Microplastics (MP) of various shapes and compositions have contaminated marine waters worldwide. These particles are ingested by various marine animals, including suspension-feeding bivalve molluscs.  Bivalves have been the focus of much research, and recently there have been calls to use bivalves as bioindicators of MP loads in the environment. To serve as a robust indicator of MP pollution, however, the proposed species should ingest, without bias, the majority of plastic particles to which it is exposed.  In this study, two species of bivalves, the blue mussel, Mytilus edulis and the eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica, were presented with polystyrene microspheres (diameters = 20, 113, 287, 510, 1000 µm) and nylon fibers (lengths = 75, 587, 1075 by 30 µm), and rejection and ingestion of particles determined. Particles were delivered to the inhalant margin of each animal at concentrations that did not stimulate excessive pseudofeces production (< 800 particles/dose), and biodeposits were identified and collected using a stereomicroscope. For both species, rejection of microspheres significantly increased with sphere size, whereas rejection of fibers was variable and showed no trend with size. Additionally, for ingested MP a large proportion of spheres and fibers were egested in < 3 h suggesting that most passed through the animal as intestinal feces. These results explain why the number of MP identified in bivalves is low, and demonstrate that bivalves are not good bioindicators of MP pollution in the environment.

Marine Plastic Pollution- An NGO perspective

Kimberly A. Warner, Oceana International Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

Abstract:  Plastic pollution is a growing threat to the world’s oceans, as well as our food, health and climate. Plastic pollution permeates every corner of our world and now is cemented in our fossil record. As plastics continue to flood into our oceans, the list of marine species affected by plastic debris expands. While we begin to realize the extent of plastic pollution’s current effects on the oceans, plastic production is projected to quadruple by 2050 with a consummate threefold increase in ocean plastic expected by 2025. Waste-management solutions have not adequately dealt with plastic pollution in the past and cannot realistically keep up with the rising rates of plastic production. Oceana’s focus on stopping plastic pollution from entering the oceans by reducing the amount of single-use plastic being produced at the source will be presented. This approach calls on companies to significantly reduce the amount of plastic they are putting on the market and offer consumers plastic-free choices for their products. Oceana also seeks policy change at the local, state and national levels that will require companies to reduce plastic production and use in the countries where we operate. 

Microplastics as a novel air pollutant: challenges, implications and the future

Stephanie Wright, Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Environment and Health, King’s College London/MRC Toxicology Unit, UK.

Abstract:  Microplastics are a complex class of heavily modified, synthetic organic particulates which contaminate a range of environments. Laboratory studies indicate they can negatively impact biota following exposure, primarily via oxidative stress and metabolic disruption. Recently, microplastics have been reported in atmospheric deposition, and indoor and outdoor air in major population centres. This has raised concern for public health due to the potential for exposure via inhalation. However, very little is known about airborne microplastics, including their concentrations, chemical composition and toxicity.

It is therefore timely to reflect on the scope for microplastics to cause harm, in which some of the key parameters involved include size and accumulative potential. Focusing on an inhalation pathway, this talk will cover recent work on the detection of microplastics in complex matrices. Using a combination of FTIR and Raman microscopy, we have developed a range of semi-quantitative workflows for different sample types, including for the detection of microplastics down to 2 µm directly in particulate matter. The plausible health hazards of microplastics will then be covered, in addition to recommendations for future research, including examples from our research at King’s College London.

Assessing the Fate of Plastics: Colonization and density changes

Erik Zettler, Department of Marine Microbiology and Biogeochemistry, NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research & Utrecht University

Abstract: Colonization of plastic in the ocean by “fouling” communities and subsequent sinking due to density changes is often cited as one of the mechanisms for removing PMD from the surface. However, there are relatively few studies that document sinking of buoyant plastic resulting from colonization by microbes and metazoans. We quantified density changes in plastic of various formats due to colonization by microbial cultures in the laboratory, and colonization by mixed communities in-situ. As expected, the shape of the plastic piece and consequent surface area to volume ratio had a major impact on results. Microbial biofilms alone increased the density of plastic, but changes were small enough that they would only cause sinking in pieces with very high SA:Vol ratios. Samples incubated in-situ in the sea developed a diverse community of microbes and metazoans that resulted in density increases and sinking, sometimes within weeks of exposure. Over time the fouling community increased and caused sinking in PMD with lower SA:Vol ratios. Our results suggest that fouling will selectively remove PMD based on resin density and the fragment size and shape, and that the impact will vary with location and season as the fouling community changes.