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4. Mar 2021 | Application Areas

Protective ship coatings as an underestimated source of microplastic pollution

Shipping traffic can be a major source of tiny plastic particles floating in the sea, especially out in the open ocean. Scientists now provide an overview of microplastics mass distribution in the North Sea.
Literature studies show that in the European Union alone, several thousand tonnes of paint end up in the marine environment every year.
Image source: Alexander Kliem - Pixabay (symbol image).

A team of environmental geochemists based at the University of Oldenburg's Institute of Chemistry and Biology of the Marine Environment led by Dr Barbara Scholz-Böttcher found that most of the plastic particles in water samples taken from the German Bight, an area in the south-eastern North Sea which encompasses some of the world's busiest shipping lanes, originate from binders used in marine paints. "Our hypothesis is that ships leave a kind of 'skid mark' in the water which is of similar significance as a source of microplastics as tyre wear particles from cars are on land," Scholz-Böttcher says.

In the autumn of 2016 and 2017, the Oldenburg team took water samples from various locations in the German Bight with the research vessel "Heincke". The team was surprised by the results: the samples contained above all indicators for polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polymers known as acrylates, and polycarbonates. Their mass accounted for about two-thirds of the total microplastic content in the mean and up to 80 percent in certain samples. Packaging plastics such as polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which were previously estimated to make up the bulk of microplastics in the sea, accounted for a much smaller percentage. "We weren't expecting this distribution pattern," says Scholz-Böttcher.

Larger quantities of microplastics produced directly at sea?

When the researchers conducted a more detailed analysis of the results they observed that PE, PP and PET plastics were found mainly near the coastline, whereas in the open North Sea and in the Elbe estuary – particularly in the proximity of major shipping routes – the other types of plastic were predominant. "We believe that these particles originate from ship coatings, where these plastics are used as binders in acrylic paints or epoxy resins, for example," Scholz-Böttcher explains. These results suggest that far larger quantities of microplastics are produced directly at sea than previously thought.

According to the team, literature studies show that in the European Union alone, several thousand tonnes of paint end up in the marine environment every year. With potentially harmful consequences for the environment: coatings and paints used on ships contain heavy metals and other additives that are toxic to many organisms. These antifouling components are used to protect ships' hulls from barnacles and other subaquatic organisms and are constantly rubbed off by the wind and waves. The team is currently conducting further studies, for example in river estuaries and in sediments, to gain more insights into how these microplastics enter the environment.

The study has been published in Environmental Science & Technology. More information can be found on the IDW website as well.

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Making coating systems more environmentally compatible is a burning issue for everyone in the industry, and one that is being fuelled by the European Green Deal. Learn all you need to know about sustainable coatings, how to produce coatings in a more environmentally friendly way and how to give coated products a longer service life. You will find an overview in the EC Tech Report of the many various approaches being adopted. We will dive deep into the European Green Deal, its key points and main purpose as well as consequences for the coating industry, see which new raw materials are being developed to replace or lower the content of products in the SVHC group and learn about different approaches to sustainable paint formulation.

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