Characteristics and Sinking Behavior of Typical Microplastics Including the Potential Effect of Biofouling: Implications for Remediation

Date of publication 10 August 2020

Authors van Melkebeke, Michiel; Janssen, Colin; Meester, Steven De.

Sources Environmental science & technology : 54 (DocId: 14) 8668–8680.



Microplastics are ubiquitous pollutants within the marine environment, predominantly (>90%) accumulating in sediments worldwide. Despite the increasing global concern regarding these anthropogenic pollutants, research into the remediation of microplastics is lacking. Here, we examine those characteristics of microplastics that are essential to adequately evaluate potential remediation techniques such as sedimentation and (air) flotation techniques. We analyzed the sinking behavior of typical microplastics originating from real plastic waste samples and identified the best-available drag model to quantitatively describe their sinking behavior. Particle shape is confirmed to be an important parameter strongly affecting the sinking behavior of microplastics. Various common shape descriptors were experimentally evaluated on their ability to appropriately characterize frequently occurring particle shapes of typical microplastics such as spheres, films, and fibers. This study is the first in this field to include film particles in its experimental design, which were found to make up a considerable fraction of marine pollution and are shown to significantly affect the evaluation of shape-dependent drag models. Circularity chi and sphericity Phi are found to be appropriate shape descriptors in this context. We also investigated the effect of biofouling on the polarity of marine plastics and estimated its potential contribution to the settling motion of initially floating microplastics based on density- modification. It is found that biofouling alters the polarity of plastics significantly; this is from (near) hydrophobic (i.e., water contact angles from 70 to 100 degrees) to strong hydrophilic (i.e., water contact angles from 30 to 40 degrees) surfaces, rendering them more difficult to separate from sediment based on polarity as a primary separation factor. Thus, besides providing a better understanding of the fate and behavior of typical marine microplastics, these findings serve as a fundamental stepping-stone to the development of the first large-scale sediment remediation technique for microplastics to address the global microplastic accumulation issue.

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