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Integrated effects of polymer type, size and shape on the sinking dynamics of biofouled microplastics


Sinking of microplastics (MPs) after biofouling is considered an important mechanisms responsible for the downward transport/sedimentation of MPs in the ocean and freshwaters. Previous studies demonstrated MP sinking caused by an increase in the composite density of MPs after biofouling, while MPs with smaller size or shapes with higher surface area to volume ratios (SA:V), such as films, are speculated to sink faster. In this study, we designed an in situ microcosm to simulate the ambient environmental conditions experienced by floating MPs to elucidate the biofouling and sinking of polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), and expanded-polystyrene (EPS) MPs of various sizes and shapes. Our results showed smaller PE and PP MP granules sank faster than large ones. Even EPS granules of 100 μm diameter, having a much lower density (0.02 mg/mm3) than water, started to sink after 2 weeks of biofouling. Moreover, PE film and fiber MPs with higher SA:V did not sink faster than PE MP granules of the same mass, implying that mechanisms other than SA:V, such as fouling contact area and drag coefficient, play a role in the regulation of biofouling and sinking of MPs.

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