Polymeric differences of plastic debris were assessed across four compartments of the Main Hawaiian Islands (sea surface, windward beaches, leeward beaches, and seafloor) to better describe sources and fate.
Plastic debris pieces (n = 4671) were collected from 11 beaches, three sea surface tows, and three seafloor dives. Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy identified the polymers of 3551 pieces. Significant differences (p < 0.05) in concentration, types, polymer composition, and weathering were found among four compartments. Windward beaches had 1−2 orders of magnitude more plastic pollution (g/m2) than leeward beaches, despite smaller human populations on windward sides. Sea surface and windward beaches were dominated by severely weathered, less dense floating polymers (polyethylene and polypropylene comprised 92.7 and 93.5% on average, respectively, of the total debris mass), while leeward beaches and the seafloor debris consisted of less weathered and more dense sinking polymers (e.g., 41.0 and 44.7% of total mass consisted of the sum of polystyrene, nylon, cellulose acetate, polyethylene terephthalate, and additive-masked debris). These results are some of the first to provide evidence of polymeric stratification in the marine environment and emphasize that the majority of marine debris in Hawaii is floating in from distant sources rather than from Hawaii’s residents or tourists.