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School of Biology & Environmental Sciences, University College Dublin, Science Centre West, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland
Centre for Research on the Ecological Impacts of Coastal Cities, A11 School of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia
Marine Biology & Ecology Research Group, School of Marine Science & Engineering, University of Plymouth, Plymouth PL4 8AA, United Kingdom
School of Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences, University of Plymouth, Plymouth PL4 8AA, United Kingdom
Waters Canada, Ontario, Canada
School of Biosciences, College of Life & Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4PS, United Kingdom
Environ. Sci. Technol., 2011, 45 (21), pp 9175–9179
DOI: 10.1021/es201811s
Publication Date (Web): September 6, 2011
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
Phone: +353 (0) 870 916 484. Fax: +353 (0) 1 716 1152. E-mail: mark.browne@ucd.ie.

Abstract

Plastic debris <1 mm (defined here as microplastic) is accumulating in marine habitats. Ingestion of microplastic provides a potential pathway for the transfer of pollutants, monomers, and plastic-additives to organisms with uncertain consequences for their health. Here, we show that microplastic contaminates the shorelines at 18 sites worldwide representing six continents from the poles to the equator, with more material in densely populated areas, but no clear relationship between the abundance of miocroplastics and the mean size-distribution of natural particulates. An important source of microplastic appears to be through sewage contaminated by fibers from washing clothes. Forensic evaluation of microplastic from sediments showed that the proportions of polyester and acrylic fibers used in clothing resembled those found in habitats that receive sewage-discharges and sewage-effluent itself. Experiments sampling wastewater from domestic washing machines demonstrated that a single garment can produce >1900 fibers per wash. This suggests that a large proportion of microplastic fibers found in the marine environment may be derived from sewage as a consequence of washing of clothes. As the human population grows and people use more synthetic textiles, contamination of habitats and animals by microplastic is likely to increase.

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