Impacts of discarded plastic bags on marine assemblages and ecosystem functioning

Environ Sci Technol. 2015 May 5;49(9):5380-9. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.5b00277. Epub 2015 Apr 20.


The accumulation of plastic debris is a global environmental problem due to its durability, persistence, and abundance. Although effects of plastic debris on individual marine organisms, particularly mammals and birds, have been extensively documented (e.g., entanglement and choking), very little is known about effects on assemblages and consequences for ecosystem functioning. In Europe, around 40% of the plastic items produced are utilized as single-use packaging, which rapidly accumulate in waste management facilities and as litter in the environment. A range of biodegradable plastics have been developed with the aspiration of reducing the persistence of litter; however, their impacts on marine assemblages or ecosystem functioning have never been evaluated. A field experiment was conducted to assess the impact of conventional and biodegradable plastic carrier bags as litter on benthic macro- and meio-faunal assemblages and biogeochemical processes (primary productivity, redox condition, organic matter content, and pore-water nutrients) on an intertidal shore near Dublin, Ireland. After 9 weeks, the presence of either type of bag created anoxic conditions within the sediment along with reduced primary productivity and organic matter and significantly lower abundances of infaunal invertebrates. This indicates that both conventional and biodegradable bags can rapidly alter marine assemblages and the ecosystem services they provide.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Ammonium Compounds / analysis
  • Animals
  • Aquatic Organisms / physiology*
  • Biodegradation, Environmental
  • Biodiversity
  • Chlorophyll / analysis
  • Ecosystem*
  • Geologic Sediments / chemistry
  • Ireland
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Plastics*
  • Porosity
  • Silicon Dioxide / analysis
  • Species Specificity
  • Waste Products*


  • Ammonium Compounds
  • Plastics
  • Waste Products
  • Chlorophyll
  • Silicon Dioxide