Occurrence and distribution of microplastics at selected coastal sites along the southeastern United States
To investigate the occurrence and distribution of microplastics in the southeastern coastal region of the United States, we quantified the amount of microplastics in sand samples from multiple coastal sites and developed a predictive model to understand the drift of plastics via ocean currents. Sand samples from eighteen National Park Service (NPS) beaches in the Southeastern Region were collected and microplastics were isolated from each sample. Microplastic counts were compared among sites and local geography was used to make inferences about sources and modes of distribution. Samples were analyzed to identify the composition of particles using Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR). To predict the spatiotemporal distribution and movements of particles via coastal currents, a Regional Ocean Modeling System (ROMS) was applied. Microplastics were detected in each of the sampled sites although abundance among sites was highly variable. Approximately half of the samples were dominated by thread-like and fibrous materials as opposed to beads and particles. Results of FTIR suggested that 24% consisted of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), while about 68% of the fibers tested were composed of man-made cellulosic materials such as rayon. Based on published studies examining sources of microplastics, the shape of the particles found here (mostly fibers) and the presence of PET, we infer the source of microplastics in coastal areas is mainly from urban areas, such as wastewater discharge, rather than breakdown of larger marine debris drifting in the ocean. Local geographic features, e.g., the nearness of sites to large rivers and urbanized areas, explain variance in amount of microplastics among sites. Additionally, the distribution of simulated particles is explained by ocean current patterns; computer simulations were correlated with field observations, reinforcing the idea that ocean currents can be a good predictor of the fate and distribution of microplastics at the sites sampled here.