The Reactivity of Polyethylene Microplastics in Water under Low Oxygen Conditions Using Radiation Chemistry
Polyethylene (PE) is an intensely utilized polymer, which has consequently led to it becoming a common environmental contaminant. PE and other plastic waste are known to be highly persistent in surface waters; however, chemical and physical changes do take place over time, dependent mostly on highly variable natural conditions, such as oxygen (O2) availability. Gamma radiation was used to generate reactive oxygen species, namely hydroxyl radicals, in initially aerated aqueous solutions to simulate the natural weathering of microplastics in waters where there are fluctuations and often depletions in dissolved O2. The headspace of the irradiated PE-containing solutions was probed for the formation of degradation products using solid-phase microextraction (SPME) fibers in combination with gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS). The major species detected were n-dodecane, with trace levels of tridecane, 2-dodecanone, and hexadecane, which were believed to be predominately adsorbed in the PE microplastics in excess of their aqueous solubility limits. Surface characterization by Raman spectroscopy and light and dark field microscopy indicated no change in the chemical composition of the irradiated PE microplastics under low O2 to anaerobic conditions. However, morphological changes were observed, indicating radical combination reactions.