Sinking of microbial-associated microplastics in natural waters
Degraded plastic debris has been found in nearly all waters within and nearby urban developments as well as in the open oceans. Natural removal of suspended microplastics (MPs) by deposition is often limited by their excess buoyancy relative to water, but this can change with the attachment of biological matter. The extent to which the attached biological ballast affects MP dynamics is still not well characterised. Here, we experimentally demonstrate using a novel OMCEC (Optical Measurement of CEll colonisation) system that the biological fraction of MP aggregates has substantial control over their size, shape and, most importantly, their settling velocity. Polyurethane MP aggregates made of 80% biological ballast had an average size almost twice of those containing 5% biological ballast, and sank about two times slower. Based on our experiments, we introduce a settling velocity equation that accounts for different biological content as well as the irregular fractal structure of MP aggregates. This equation can capture the settling velocity of both virgin MPs and microbial-associated MP aggregates in our experiment with 7% error and can be used as a preliminary tool to estimate the vertical transport of MP aggregates made of different polymers and types of microbial ballast.