From macroplastic to microplastic: Degradation of high-density polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene in a salt marsh habitat

Environ Toxicol Chem. 2016 Jul;35(7):1632-40. doi: 10.1002/etc.3432. Epub 2016 May 10.


As part of the degradation process, it is believed that most plastic debris becomes brittle over time, fragmenting into progressively smaller particles. The smallest of these particles, known as microplastics, have been receiving increased attention because of the hazards they present to wildlife. To understand the process of plastic degradation in an intertidal salt marsh habitat, strips (15.2 cm × 2.5 cm) of high-density polyethylene, polypropylene, and extruded polystyrene were field-deployed in June 2014 and monitored for biological succession, weight, surface area, ultraviolet (UV) transmittance, and fragmentation. Subsets of strips were collected after 4 wk, 8 wk, 16 wk, and 32 wk. After 4 wk, biofilm had developed on all 3 polymers with evidence of grazing periwinkles (Littoraria irrorata). The accreting biofilm resulted in an increased weight of the polypropylene and polystyrene strips at 32 wk by 33.5% and 167.0%, respectively, with a concomitant decrease in UV transmittance by approximately 99%. Beginning at 8 wk, microplastic fragments and fibers were produced from strips of all 3 polymers, and scanning electron microscopy revealed surface erosion of the strips characterized by extensive cracking and pitting. The results suggest that the degradation of plastic debris proceeds relatively quickly in salt marshes and that surface delamination is the primary mechanism by which microplastic particles are produced in the early stages of degradation. Environ Toxicol Chem 2016;35:1632-1640. © 2016 SETAC.

Keywords: High-density polyethylene; Marine plastic; Microplastic; Polypropylene; Polystyrene.

MeSH terms

  • Particle Size
  • Plastics / analysis*
  • Plastics / chemistry
  • Polyethylene / analysis
  • Polyethylene / chemistry
  • Polypropylenes / analysis
  • Polypropylenes / chemistry
  • Polystyrenes / analysis
  • Polystyrenes / chemistry
  • Sodium Chloride / analysis
  • Surface Properties
  • Waste Products / analysis*
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / analysis*
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / chemistry
  • Wetlands*


  • Plastics
  • Polypropylenes
  • Polystyrenes
  • Waste Products
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical
  • Sodium Chloride
  • Polyethylene