Research Article: Biofilm and Diatom Succession on Polyethylene (PE) and Biodegradable Plastic Bags in Two Marine Habitats: Early Signs of Degradation in the Pelagic and Benthic Zone?

Date Published: September 22, 2015

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Andreas Eich, Tobias Mildenberger, Christian Laforsch, Miriam Weber, Dee A. Carter.


The production of biodegradable plastic is increasing. Given the augmented littering of these products an increasing input into the sea is expected. Previous laboratory experiments have shown that degradation of plastic starts within days to weeks. Little is known about the early composition and activity of biofilms found on biodegradable and conventional plastic debris and its correlation to degradation in the marine environment. In this study we investigated the early formation of biofilms on plastic shopper bags and its consequences for the degradation of plastic. Samples of polyethylene and biodegradable plastic were tested in the Mediterranean Sea for 15 and 33 days. The samples were distributed equally to a shallow benthic (sedimentary seafloor at 6 m water depth) and a pelagic habitat (3 m water depth) to compare the impact of these different environments on fouling and degradation. The amount of biofilm increased on both plastic types and in both habitats. The diatom abundance and diversity differed significantly between the habitats and the plastic types. Diatoms were more abundant on samples from the pelagic zone. We anticipate that specific surface properties of the polymer types induced different biofilm communities on both plastic types. Additionally, different environmental conditions between the benthic and pelagic experimental site such as light intensity and shear forces may have influenced unequal colonisation between these habitats. The oxygen production rate was negative for all samples, indicating that the initial biofilm on marine plastic litter consumes oxygen, regardless of the plastic type or if exposed in the pelagic or the benthic zone. Mechanical tests did not reveal degradation within one month of exposure. However, scanning electron microscopy (SEM) analysis displayed potential signs of degradation on the plastic surface, which differed between both plastic types. This study indicates that the early biofilm formation and composition are affected by the plastic type and habitat. Further, it reveals that already within two weeks biodegradable plastic shows signs of degradation in the benthic and pelagic habitat.

Partial Text

The production of plastics has increased over the past 50 years. In 2012, 288 million tons of plastics were produced worldwide [1]. Most of it is fabricated for single use only, like packaging materials, which represented around 40% of the European plastic demand in 2012 [1]. After disposal, plastic litter can be introduced into the marine environment by rivers, airborne transport, storm events, and tsunamis [2–5]. One of the largest contributors to marine plastic litter are discarded products from recreational and commercial seafaring [6–9]. Related environmental consequences include the entanglement of animals, mechanical impairments of swallowed plastics mistaken as food, accumulation of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and the transportation of harmful algae and invasive species [8,10,11]. Newest modelling data predict that the input to the sea will increase in the order of one magnitude until 2025, if no changes in the waste management occur [12].

The study required no permit or approval as there we no ethical aspects raised. The field tests took place in a public marine area without any protection status, there were no animals involved, nor any environmental items sampled. The field tests consisted of a short-term exposure of non-hazardous artificial materials (concrete bricks, rope, plastic) in a marine coastal environment characterized by physical mixing and sediment redistribution (sand bottom). All materials were retrieved completely after the tests, posing no source of pollution or impact to the marine environment.

After 15 days of exposure to the marine environment a biofilm formed on the plastic surface of both plastic types and in both studied habitats. Similar observations were made for plastic that was exposed two meters below the water surface in the English Channel [25]. We conclude that a biofilm develops on plastic litter as soon as it is introduced to the marine environment, no matter to which habitat.