Sorption capacity of plastic debris for hydrophobic organic chemicals

Hwang Lee, Won Joon Shim, Jung Hwan Kwon

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368 Citations (Scopus)


The occurrence of microplastics (MPs) in the ocean is an emerging world-wide concern. Due to high sorption capacity of plastics for hydrophobic organic chemicals (HOCs), sorption may play an important role in the transport processes of HOCs. However, sorption capacity of various plastic materials is rarely documented except in the case of those used for environmental sampling purposes. In this study, we measured partition coefficients between MPs and seawater (KMPsw) for 8 polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), 4 hexachlorocyclohexanes (HCHs) and 2 chlorinated benzenes (CBs). Three surrogate polymers - polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene - were used as model plastic debris because they are the major components of microplastic debris found. Due to the limited solubility of HOCs in seawater and their long equilibration time, a third-phase partitioning method was used for the determination of KMPsw. First, partition coefficients between polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) and seawater (KPDMSsw) were measured. For the determination of KMPsw, the distribution of HOCs between PDMS or plastics and solvent mixture (methanol:water=8:2 (v/v)) was determined after apparent equilibrium up to 12weeks. Plastic debris was prepared in a laboratory by physical crushing; the median longest dimension was 320-440μm. Partition coefficients between polyethylene and seawater obtained using the third-phase equilibrium method agreed well with experimental partition coefficients between low-density polyethylene and water in the literature. The values of KMPsw were generally in the order of polystyrene, polyethylene, and polypropylene for most of the chemicals tested. The ranges of log KMPsw were 2.04-7.87, 2.18-7.00, and 2.63-7.52 for polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene, respectively. The partition coefficients of plastic debris can be as high as other frequently used partition coefficients, such as 1-octanol-water partition coefficients (Kow) and log KMPsw showed good linear correlations with log Kow. High sorption capacity of microplastics implies the importance of MP-associated transport of HOCs in the marine environment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1545-1552
Number of pages8
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 2014 Feb 1


  • Equilibrium partitioning
  • Marine pollution
  • Microplastics
  • Nanomaterial
  • New POPs
  • QSARs

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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