The size, mass, and composition of plastic debris in the western North Atlantic Ocean. Academic Article uri icon


  • This study reports the first inventory of physical properties of individual plastic debris in the North Atlantic. We analyzed 748 samples for size, mass, and material composition collected from surface net tows on 11 expeditions from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to the Caribbean Sea between 1991 and 2007. Particles were mostly fragments less than 10mm in size with nearly all lighter than 0.05 g. Material densities ranged from 0.808 to 1.24 g ml(-1), with about half between 0.97 and 1.04 g ml(-1), a range not typically found in virgin plastics. Elemental analysis suggests that samples in this density range are consistent with polypropylene and polyethylene whose densities have increased, likely due to biofouling. Pelagic densities varied considerably from that of beach plastic debris, suggesting that plastic particles are modified during their residence at sea. These analyses provide clues in understanding particle fate and potential debris sources, and address ecological implications of pelagic plastic debris.

publication date

  • October 2010