Plastic litter fate and contaminant transport within the urban environment, photodegradation, fragmentation, and heavy metal uptake from storm runoff


A significant portion of urban litter is plastic which contaminates the environment and threatens ecological safety. The conversion of plastic litter into small fragments called microplastics (MPs) intensifies their critical risks by facilitating their transport and altering their physicochemical features. This study focuses on low density polyethylene (LDPE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) as the main components of urban litter. The photodegradation of LDPE and PET MPs due to the accelerated weathering experiments is investigated through surface chemistry and morphology analysis. The influence of MPs’ photodegradation on their fragmentation behavior is evaluated through the innovative accelerated mechanical weathering experiments that simulated the abrasion of MPs with the road deposits. Furthermore, the role of MPs as the vehicles to transport the heavy metals from the urban environment to the water resources is evaluated by studying the kinetics of lead (Pb) uptake by new and weathered MPs in synthetic stormwater. The surface morphology investigation revealed the formation of crazes and the crack networks onto the MPs due to the weathering experiments. The surface chemistry analysis revealed the generation of several oxidized carbon surface functional groups onto the photodegraded MPs and their increased susceptibility to fragmentation due to the abrasion with the road deposits. The photodegradation increased the Pb accumulation onto the LDPE and PET MPs from 467 μg/m2 and 21 μg/m2 to 2290 μg/m2 and 725 μg/m2, after five days of metal exposure. The fundamental knowledge developed in this research provides a better conceptual understanding of the mechanisms controlling MPs persistence and contaminant transport within the urban environment, which is crucial to estimate their negative impacts on the ecosystem.

Publication Title

Environmental Research