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Variation in microplastics composition at small spatial and temporal scales in a tidal flat of the Yangtze Estuary, China

Wu, Fengrun, Pennings, Steven C., Tong, Chunfu, Xu, Yutian
The Science of the total environment 2019
altitude, coasts, estuaries, habitats, littoral zone, microplastics, pollution, pollution control, risk, sediments, spring, submergence, tides, vegetation, China
Microplastics are small, degrade slowly, and easily persist in the water column because they are close to neutrally buoyant. Understanding the distribution of microplastics is fundamental to evaluating the ecological risks that they cause and to identifying ways to control microplastics pollution. Most of the existing research on the distribution of microplastics in the coastal zone has focused on large spatial and temporal scales. To build on past work, we investigated variation in microplastics in a tidal flat of the Yangtze Estuary on small spatial (sediment depth, mudflat vs. vegetation zone) and temporal (fortnightly and semidiurnal) scales. Microplastics were more abundant in surface (0–2 cm) sediments during neap versus spring tide cycles, likely indicating increased deposition during periods with calm waters and increased suspension when water was more turbulent, but did not vary at greater depths in the sediment. Individual microplastics particles were also larger during neap versus spring tide periods. In contrast to the variation between spring and neap tide periods, we found no variation in the abundance of microplastics on the semidiurnal scale. Microplastics were also more abundant in the transect in the vegetation than at slightly lower elevations in the adjacent mudflat. Across all samples, the abundance of microplastics was negatively correlated with the strength of hydrological processes such as submergence time and flow velocity. Our results showed that sampling of microplastics in the intertidal environment needs to consider variation among spring and neap tide cycles, and also among different intertidal habitats that may differ only slightly in elevation. We encourage coupling the sampling with direct measures of hydrological processes so that variation in microplastics abundance and size can be rigorously linked to hydrological processes.