Settling of buoyant microplastic in estuaries: The importance of flocculation

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Rivers and estuaries are regarded as major pathways of microplastic (MP) transport from terrestrial areas to marine ecosystems. Despite this knowledge on the transport dynamics and fate of MP in freshwater riverine and brackish estuarine waters is limited. Via ex situ settling experiments emulating the Msimbazi River and Estuary in Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania, we demonstrate that flocculation and subsequent settling of positively buoyant MP and fine-grained suspended sediment in riverine and estuarine waters are important for the environmental fate of the plastic particles. Our results show that settling velocities of MP and fine-grained sediment in estuarine water were between five and 21 times larger than in freshwater, explained by the increase in ionic strength that occurs when particles enter saline water. This confirms the concept of increased flocculation and settling of fine-grained particles as they are transported from freshwater to estuarine and marine waters. The implication is that land-based sources of small positively buoyant high-density polyethylene (HDPE) MP transported by rivers will tend to settle and accumulate in estuarine environments and thereby lead to a decrease in the overall load of MPs delivered to the wider marine environment. Thereby our results support the notion of estuaries as MP traps and that flocculation explains the trapping of large quantities of MP debris. Based on these findings we recommend that the interaction of MP with fine-grained sediment should be taken into account when transport models of this pollutant are established.

TidsskriftScience of the Total Environment
Antal sider12
StatusUdgivet - 2023

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