Defined as plastic particles <5mm , microplastics (MP) are present in many household items and are also formed due to the cracking and embrittlement of larger plastic particles. Owing to their inherent physical and chemical characteristics, MPs are persistent and ubiquitous aquatic contaminants that can be potentially ingested by benthic and planktonic organisms, thus entering food webs . Additionally, studies have shown that the microbial communities that colonize these materials differ enormously from the indigenous free-living marine communities . This could pose a significant threat not only to biodiversity, as microbial “hitchhikers” may constitute invasive species, but also to humans, due to increased exposure in bathing waters and beaches .
All these threats are further exacerbated by these materials’ characteristic high surface area-to-volume ratios. Other contaminants, namely, persistent organic pollutants, can be adsorbed by these particulates and result in bioaccumulation and bioamplification phenomena . Therefore, a detailed quantitative and qualitative monitoring of microplastics and their effects in the marine environment is highly recommended by the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) .
Considering that the physicochemical properties of microplastics affect their transport and bioavailability in the environment , an evaluation of their ecotoxicological effects becomes of paramount importance. Hence, the assessment of potential ecotoxicological effects is also proposed, resorting to standardized methodologies which will be adapted towards the evaluation of MP toxicity.
Hence, the goals of this project are:
1) Collection, cataloguing and storage of microplastics from aquatic systems;
2) Understanding their degradation behaviour, including lifetimes and fate;
3) Filling the knowledge gap pertaining to the ecotoxicological effects of MP in the environment;
4) Contribute with key information to the development of water policies and management strategies.
The MSFD acknowledges a limitation in the “knowledge of the accumulation, sources, sinks (…) environmental impacts (…) and potential physical and chemical impacts” of microplastics. As such, the prospective results will contribute to the understanding of the presence and impacts of microplastic pollution and provide insights into potential routes across the Euro-region, greatly benefiting the environment, coastal populations’ health and activities, including recreation, tourism and fisheries.