© The Author(s), 2021. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License. The definitive version was published in Walsh, A. N., Reddy, C. M., Niles, S. F., McKenna, A. M., Hansel, C. M., & Ward, C. P. Plastic formulation is an emerging control of its photochemical fate in the ocean. Environmental Science & Technology, 55(18), (2021): 12383–12392, https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.1c02272.
Sunlight exposure is a control of long-term plastic fate in the environment that converts plastic into oxygenated products spanning the polymer, dissolved, and gas phases. However, our understanding of how plastic formulation influences the amount and composition of these photoproducts remains incomplete. Here, we characterized the initial formulations and resulting dissolved photoproducts of four single-use consumer polyethylene (PE) bags from major retailers and one pure PE film. Consumer PE bags contained 15–36% inorganic additives, primarily calcium carbonate (13–34%) and titanium dioxide (TiO2; 1–2%). Sunlight exposure consistently increased production of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) relative to leaching in the dark (3- to 80-fold). All consumer PE bags produced more DOC during sunlight exposure than the pure PE (1.2- to 2.0-fold). The DOC leached after sunlight exposure increasingly reflected the 13C and 14C isotopic composition of the plastic. Ultrahigh resolution Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry revealed that sunlight exposure substantially increased the number of DOC formulas detected (1.1- to 50-fold). TiO2-containing bags photochemically degraded into the most compositionally similar DOC, with 68–94% of photoproduced formulas in common with at least one other TiO2-containing bag. Conversely, only 28% of photoproduced formulas from the pure PE were detected in photoproduced DOC from the consumer PE. Overall, these findings suggest that plastic formulation, especially TiO2, plays a determining role in the amount and composition of DOC generated by sunlight. Consequently, studies on pure, unweathered polymers may not accurately represent the fates and impacts of the plastics entering the ocean.
Funding was provided by the Seaver Institute, the Gerstner Family Foundation, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (A.N.W.). The Ion Cyclotron Resonance user facility at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory is supported by the National Science Foundation Division of Chemistry and Division of Materials Research through DMR-1644779 and the State of Florida.
dissolved organic carbon
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