Research ArticleOCEANOGRAPHY

Microfibers in oceanic surface waters: A global characterization

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Science Advances  05 Jun 2020:
Vol. 6, no. 23, eaay8493
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aay8493


Microfibers are ubiquitous contaminants of emerging concern. Traditionally ascribed to the “microplastics” family, their widespread occurrence in the natural environment is commonly reported in plastic pollution studies, based on the assumption that fibers largely derive from wear and tear of synthetic textiles. By compiling a global dataset from 916 seawater samples collected in six ocean basins, we show that although synthetic polymers currently account for two-thirds of global fiber production, oceanic fibers are mainly composed of natural polymers. µFT-IR characterization of ~2000 fibers revealed that only 8.2% of oceanic fibers are synthetic, with most being cellulosic (79.5%) or of animal origin (12.3%). The widespread occurrence of natural fibers throughout marine environments emphasizes the necessity of chemically identifying microfibers before classifying them as microplastics. Our results highlight a considerable mismatch between the global production of synthetic fibers and the current composition of marine fibers, a finding that clearly deserves further attention.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, so long as the resultant use is not for commercial advantage and provided the original work is properly cited.

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