Urban Microplastics Emissions: Effectiveness of Retention Measures and Consequences for the Baltic Sea

Urban sources, wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs), untreated wastewater (not connected to WWTPs), and especially combined sewer overflow systems (CSS) including stormwater are major pathways for microplastics in the aquatic environment. We compile microplastics emission data for the Baltic Sea region, calculate emissions for each pathway and develop emission scenarios for selected polymer types, namely polyethylene (PE)/polypropylene (PP) and the polyester polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PE/PP and PET differ with respect to their density and can be regarded as representative for large groups of polymers. We consider particles between 20–500 μm with varying shapes.

The emission scenarios serve as input for 3D-model simulations, which allow us to estimate transport, behavior, and deposition in the Baltic Sea environment. According to our model results, the average residence time of PET and PE/PP in the Baltic Sea water body is about 14 days. Microplastics from urban sources cause average concentrations of 1.4 PE/PP (0.7 PET) particles/m2 sea surface (20–500 μm size range) in the Baltic Sea during summer. Average concentrations of PET, resulting from urban sources, at the sea floor are 4 particles/m2 sediment surface during summer.

Our model approach suggests that accumulation at the shoreline is the major sink for microplastic with annual coastal PE/PP and PET accumulation rates of up to 108 particles/m each near emission hot-spots and in enclosed and semi-closed systems. All concentrations show strong spatial and temporal variability and are linked to high uncertainties.

The seasonality of CSS (including stormwater) emissions is assessed in detail. In the south-eastern Baltic, emissions during July and August can be up to 50% of the annual CSS and above 1/3 of the total annual microplastic emissions. The practical consequences especially for monitoring, which should focus on beaches, are discussed. Further, it seems that PET, PE/PP can serve as indicators to assess the state of pollution.

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