The distribution and ecological effects of microplastics in an estuarine ecosystem

Julie Anne Hope*, Giovanni Coco, Samantha Ladewig, Simon Thrush

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Coastal sediments, where microplastics (MPs) accumulate, support benthic microalgae (BMA) that contribute to ecosystem functions such as primary production, nutrient recycling and sediment biostabilization. The potential interactions between MPs, BMA and associated properties and functions remain poorly understood. To examine these interactions, a survey of 22 intertidal sites was conducted. MP abundance, size and a suite of MP diversity indices (based on color and shape) were determined from surface sediments alongside biochemical and physical properties. MPs were detected at all sites and dominated by polypropylene (34%), polyester (18%) and polyethylene (11%). Fragment and fiber dominance (16–92% and 6–81% respectively) and color-shape category diversity varied significantly by site. Distance-based linear models demonstrated that estuary-wide, mean grain size and mud were the best predictors of MP abundance-diversity matrices, but variance explained was low (9%). Relationships were improved when the data was split into sandy and muddy habitats. In sandy habitats (8% mud), porewater ammonium was lower when fiber abundance and overall MP diversity were higher. The inclusion of porewater ammonium, organic matter content and pheophytins alongside physical properties explained a greater percentage of the variance in MP abundance-diversity for muddy habitats (21%). The results highlight the importance of examining plastic shapes and MP categories in addition to abundance and emphasize that functionally different habitats should be examined separately to increase our understanding of MP-biota-function relationships.
Original languageEnglish
Article number117731
Number of pages12
JournalEnvironmental Pollution
Early online date14 Jul 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2021


  • Benthic ecology
  • Ecosystem effects
  • Ecosystem function
  • Intertidal soft sediment
  • Micropytobenthos
  • Microplastics


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