Microstructure Characterization of Oceanic Polyethylene Debris

Environ Sci Technol. 2020 Apr 7;54(7):4102-4109. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.9b07061. Epub 2020 Mar 20.


Plastic pollution has become a worldwide concern. It was demonstrated that plastic breaks down to nanoscale particles in the environment, forming so-called nanoplastics. It is important to understand their ecological impact, but their structure is not elucidated. In this original work, we characterize the microstructure of oceanic polyethylene debris and compare it to the nonweathered objects. Cross sections are analyzed by several emergent mapping techniques. We highlight deep modifications of the debris within a layer a few hundred micrometers thick. The most intense modifications are macromolecule oxidation and a considerable decrease in the molecular weight. The adsorption of organic pollutants and trace metals is also confined to this outer layer. Fragmentation of the oxidized layer of the plastic debris is the most likely source of nanoplastics. Consequently the nanoplastic chemical nature differs greatly from plastics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Oceans and Seas
  • Plastics
  • Polyethylene*
  • Waste Products
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical*


  • Plastics
  • Waste Products
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical
  • Polyethylene