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Accumulation of anthropogenic litter (i.e. garbage; AL) and its ecosystem effects in marine environments are well documented. Rivers receive AL from terrestrial habitats and represent a major source of AL to marine environments, but AL is rarely studied within freshwater ecosystems. Our objectives were to 1) quantify AL density in urban freshwaters, 2) compare AL abundance among freshwater, terrestrial, and marine ecosystems, and 3) characterize the activity and composition of AL biofilms in freshwater habitats. We quantified AL from the Chicago River and Chicago's Lake Michigan shoreline, and found that AL abundance in Chicago freshwater ecosystems was comparable to previously reported data for marine and terrestrial ecosystems, although AL density and composition differed among habitats. To assess microbial interactions with AL, we incubated AL and natural substrates in 3 freshwater ecosystems, quantified biofilm metabolism as gross primary production (GPP) and community respiration (CR), and characterized biofilm bacterial community composition via high-throughput sequencing of 16S rRNA genes. The main driver of biofilm community composition was incubation location (e.g., river vs pond), but there were some significant differences in biofilm composition and metabolism among substrates. For example, biofilms on organic substrates (cardboard and leaves) had lower GPP than hard substrates (glass, plastic, aluminum and tiles). In addition, bacterial communities on organic substrates were distinct in composition from those on hard substrates, with higher relative abundances of bacteria associated with cellulose decomposition. Finally, we used our results to develop a conceptual diagram designed to unite the study of AL in terrestrial and freshwater environments with the well-established field of marine debris research. We suggest this broad perspective will be useful for future studies which synthesize AL sources, ecosystem effects, and fate across multiple ecosystem types, and will benefit management and reduction of global AL accumulations.


© 2014 Hoellein et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.