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Plastic debris in 29 Great Lakes tributaries: Relations to watershed attributes and hydrology

October 21, 2016

Plastic debris is a growing contaminant of concern in freshwater environments, yet sources, transport, and fate remain unclear. This study characterized the quantity and morphology of floating micro- and macroplastics in 29 Great Lakes tributaries in six states under different land covers, wastewater effluent contributions, population densities, and hydrologic conditions. Tributaries were sampled three or four times each using a 333 μm mesh neuston net. Plastic particles were sorted by size, counted, and categorized as fibers/lines, pellets/beads, foams, films, and fragments. Plastics were found in all 107 samples, with a maximum concentration of 32 particles/m3 and a median of 1.9 particles/m3. Ninety-eight percent of sampled plastic particles were less than 4.75 mm in diameter and therefore considered microplastics. Fragments, films, foams, and pellets/beads were positively correlated with urban-related watershed attributes and were found at greater concentrations during runoff-event conditions. Fibers, the most frequently detected particle type, were not associated with urban-related watershed attributes, wastewater effluent contribution, or hydrologic condition. Results from this study add to the body of information currently available on microplastics in different environmental compartments, including unique contributions to quantify their occurrence and variability in rivers with a wide variety of different land-use characteristics while highlighting differences between surface samples from rivers compared with lakes.