Polyethylene based microspherules in toothpaste
Microplastic fibers identified in the marine environment

Microplastics are small plastic particles in the environment that are generally between 1-5mm.[1] They can come from a variety of sources, including cosmetics, clothing, and industrial processes. Two classifications of microplastics currently exist: primary microplastics are manufactured and are a direct result of human material and product use, and secondary microplastics are merely plastics that have been broken down by the environment.[2] Both types are recognized to persist in the environment at high levels, particularly in aquatic and marine ecosystems. UNESCO estimated in 2008 that about 245 metric tons are produced per year, with many of those products ending up in water.[3] Because plastics do not break down for many years, they can be ingested and incorporated into the bodies and tissues of many organisms.[4] The entire cycle and movement of microplastics in the environment is not yet known, but research is currently underway to investigate.



The existence of microplastics in the environment are often proved via aquatic-related studies. These include taking plankton sample, analyzing sandy and muddy sediments, observing vertebrate and invertebrate consumption, and evaluating chemical pollutant interactions.[7] Through such methods, it has been recognized that there are a variety of microplastics in the environment that come from multiple sources. These sources include:

Cosmetics industry

Some companies have replaced natural exfoliating ingredients with microplastics, usually in the form of “microbeads” or “micro-exfoliates.” These products are typically composed of polyethylene, a common component of plastics, but they can also be manufactured from polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polymethyl methacrylate, and nylon.[8] They are often found in face washes, hand soaps, and other such personal care products, so the beads are usually washed into the sewage system immediately after use. Their small size prevents them from being retained by preliminary treatment screens at wastewater plants, thereby allowing them to enter into rivers and oceans.[9]


Studies have shown that many synthetic fibers, like nylon and acrylics, can be shed from clothing and persist in the environment.[10] One load of laundry can contain more than 1,900 fibers of microplastics, with fleeces releasing the highest percentage of fibers.[11] Clothing fibers adhere easily to other chemicals in the environment so that they can become very toxin-laden the longer they exist in the environment [10]

Manufactured goods

The manufacture of plastic products uses granules and small resin pellets, as their raw material. In the United States, the production increased from 2.9 million pellets in 1960 to 21.7 million pellets in 1987. Through accidental spillage during transport, both on land and at sea, inappropriate use as packing materials, and direct outflow from processing plants, these raw materials can enter aquatic ecosystems. In an assessment of Swedish waters using an 80 µm mesh, KIMO Sweden found typical microplastic concentrations of 150–2, 400 microplastics/m3, but in a harbor adjacent to a plastic production facility, the concentration was 102,000/m3.[5]

Coastal tourism

Recreational and commercial fishing, marine vessels and marine-industries are all sources of plastic that can directly enter the marine environment, posing a risk to biota both as macroplastics, and as secondary microplastics following long-term degradation. Tourism and recreational activities account for an array of plastics being discarded along beaches and coastal resorts, although it is worth noting that marine debris observed on beaches will also arise from beaching of materials carried on in-shore- and ocean currents. Fishing gear is one of the most commonly noted plastic debris items with a marine source. Discarded or lost fishing gear, including plastic monofilament line and nylon netting, is typically neutrally buoyant and can therefore drift at variable depths within the oceans.


have significantly contributed to marine pollution. Some statistics indicate that in 1970, commercial fishing fleet in the world has thrown over 23,000 tons of plastic waste in the marine environment. In 1988, an international agreement (MARPOL 73/78, Annex V) has been implemented, and prohibited the dumping of waste from ships in the marine environment. However, due to non-implementation of the agreement, shipping remains a dominant source of plastic pollution, contributing around 6.5 million tons of plastic in the early 1990s.[12]

Natural Calamities

Floods or hurricanes can accelerate transportation of waste from land to the marine environment. A study realized in California revealed that after a storm, the transport of plastics has increased from 10 microplastics/m3 to 60 microplastics/m3. The study has shown how the waste was transported and deposited at much greater distances from the river mouth than usual. A similar study conducted near the southern coast of California shows an increase of microplastics from 1 pcs/m3 to 18 pcs/m3 after a storm. The abundance and global distribution of microplastics in the oceans has steadily increased over the last few decades with rising plastic consumption worldwide.

Potential impacts on the environment

The first International Research Workshop on the Occurrence, Effects and Fate of Microplastic Marine Debris at the University of Washington Tacoma campus in Tacoma, Washington, USA from September 9–11, 2008 agreed that microplastics may pose problems in the marine environment based on the following:

So far, research has mainly focused on larger plastic items. Widely recognized problems are associated with entanglement, ingestion, suffocation and general debilitation often leading to death and/or strandings. This raises serious public concern. In contrast, microplastics are not as conspicuous, being less than 5 mm. Particles of this size are available to a much broader range of species and therefore can cause serious threats.

Biological Integration of Microplastics into Organisms

Microplastics often become embedded in animals’ tissue through ingestion or respiration. Various fish species, such as deposit-feeding lugworms (Arenicola marina), have been shown to have microplastics embedded in their gastrointestinal tracts as while many crustaceans, like the shore crab Carcinus maenas and the have been seen to integrate microplastics into both their respiratory and digestive tracts.,,[10][13][14] Additionally, bottom feeders like benthic sea cucumbers, who are non-selective scavengers that feed on debris on the ocean floor, ingest large amounts of sediment. It has been shown that four species of sea cucumber (Thyonella gemmate, Holothuria floridana, H. grisea and Cucumaria frondosa) ingested between 2- and 20- fold more PVC fragments and between 2- and 138- fold more nylon line fragments (as much as 517 fibers per organism) based on plastic to sand grain ratios from each sediment treatment. These results offer that individuals may be selectively ingesting plastic particles. Since this suggestion opposes the previously determined indiscriminate feeding strategy of sea cucumbers, this trend may be something which could potentially occur in all non-selective feeders when presented with microplastics.[15]

It can take at least 14 days for the microplastics to pass from the animal, but enmeshment of the particles in animals’ gills can cause a prolonged presence.[16] When these microplastic-laden animals are consumed by predators, the microplastics are then incorporated into the bodies of higher trophic-level feeders. Furthermore, small animals are at risk of reduced food intake due to false satiation and resulting starvation or other physical harm from the microplastics. Thus, the current, known effects of microplastics on marine organisms after ingestion are threefold:


As fish is the primary source of protein for nearly one-fifth of the human population,[17] it is important to consider that the microplastics ingested by fish and crustaceans can be subsequently consumed by humans. In a study done by the State University of New York, 18 fish species were sampled and all species showed some level of plastics in their systems.[13][18] It remains unclear how much of an impact this has directly on the health of humans, but research on this issue continues.

Microplastics as a Dispersal of Biota

Plastic debris has also been shown to serve as carrier for the dispersal of biota, thus greatly increasing dispersal opportunities in the oceans, endangering marine biodiversity worldwide.[19] The dispersal of aggressive alien and invasive species is as much a topic as the dispersal of cosmopolitan species.[20]

Effects on Buoyancy

Approximately half of the plastic material introduced to the marine environment is buoyant, but fouling by organisms can induce the sinking of additional plastic debris to the sea floor, where it may interfere with sediment-dwelling species and sedimental gas exchange processes. Buoyancy changes in relation to ingestion of microplastics have been clearly observed in autotrophs because the absorption can interfere with photosynthesis and subsequent gas levels.[21] However, this issue is of more importance for larger plastic debris.

Persistent organic pollutants

Furthermore, plastic particles may highly concentrate and transport synthetic organic compounds (e.g. persistent organic pollutants, POPs) commonly present in the environment and ambient sea water on their surface through adsorption.[22] It still remains unknown if microplastics can act as agents for the transfer of POPs from the environment to organisms in this way, but evidence[12] suggest this to be a potential portal for entering food webs. Of further concern, additives added to plastics during manufacture may leach out upon ingestion, potentially causing serious harm to the organism. Endocrine disruption by plastic additives may affect the reproductive health of humans and wildlife alike.[23]

At current levels, microplastics are unlikely to be an important global geochemical reservoir for POPs such as PCBs, dioxins, and DDT in open oceans. It is not clear, however, if microplastics play a larger role as chemical reservoirs on smaller scales. A reservoir function is conceivable in densely populated and polluted areas, such as bights of mega-cities, areas of intensive agriculture and effluents flumes.

Oil based polymers ('plastics') are virtually non-biodegradable. However, renewable natural polymers are now in development which can be used for the production of biodegradable materials similar to that of oil-based polymers. Their properties in the environment, however, require detailed scrutiny before their wide use is propagated.

Synthetic Organic Chemicals that have been Detected in the Ocean
Name Major Health Effects
Aldicarb (Temik) High toxicity to the nervous system
Benzene Chromosomal damage, anemia, blood disorders, and leukemia
Carbon tetrachloride Cancer; liver, kidney, lung, and central nervous system damage
Chloroform Liver and kidney damage; suspected cancer
Dioxin Skin disorders, cancer, and genetic mutations
Ethylene dibromide (EDB) Cancer and male sterility
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) Liver, kidney, and lung damage
Trichloroethylene (TCE) In high concentrations, liver and kidney damage, central nervous system depression, skin problems, and suspected cancer and mutations
Vinyl chloride Liver, kidney, and lung damage; lung, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal problems; cancer and suspected mutations

Policy and Legislation

With increasing knowledge of the detrimental effects on microplastics on the environment, many groups are now advocating for the removal and ban of microplastics from various products. One of the most prominent campaigns is the “Beat the Microbead” movement, which focuses on removing plastics from personal care products.[8] The Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation are running a Microplastics Project that is working to pass a national ban on microbeads in household items and cosmetics. Even UNESCO has sponsored research and global assessment programs due to the trans-boundary issue that microplastic pollution constitutes.[3] These environmental groups will seemingly keep pressuring companies to remove plastics from their products in order to maintain healthy ecosystems.[24] Statewide action has also been taken to mitigate the negative environmental effects of microplastics as Illinois was the first U.S. state to ban cosmetics containing microplastics.[25]

See also


  1. ^ Browne, Mark A: "Ingested microscopic plastic translocates to the circulatory system of the mussel, Mytilus edulis (L.)", Environmental Science & Technology, 42(13), pp. 5026–5031, 2008
  2. ^ a b Patel, M.M., Goyal, B.R., Bhadada, S.V., Bhatt, J.S., Amin, A.F., 2009. Getting into the brain: approaches to enhance brain drug delivery. CNS Drugs 23, 35–58.
  3. ^ a b Morris and Chapman: "Marine Litter", "Green Facts: Facts on Health and the Environment", 2001-2015
  4. ^ Grossman, Elizabeth: "How Plastics from Your Clothes Can End up in Your Fish", Time, 15 Jan. 2015, http://time.com/3669084/plastics-pollution-fish/
  5. ^ a b c Cole Matthew, 2011, Microplastics as contaminants in the marine environment: A review, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Nr. 62, pp. 2588-2597
  6. ^ Sundt, Peter and Schulze, Per-Erik: "Sources of microplastic-pollution to the marine environment", "Mepex for the Norwegian Environment Agency", 2008
  7. ^ Ivar do Sul, Juliana A and Costa, Monica F: "The present and future of microplastic pollution in the marine environment", "Science Direct", 185: 352-264, February 2014
  8. ^ a b ”International Campaign against Microbeads in Cosmetics”, “Beat the Microbead”, 2015, http://www.beatthemicrobead.org/en/
  9. ^ Fendall S. Lisa, Mary A. Sewell, 2009, Contributing to marine pollution by washing your face: Microplastics in facial cleansers, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Nr. 58, pp.1225 - 1228
  10. ^ a b c Grossman, Elizabeth: “How Microplastics from Your Fleece Could End up on Your Plate”, “Civil Eats”, January 15, 2015
  11. ^ Browne A., 2011, Accumulations of microplastic on shorelines worldwide: sources and sinks, Environmental Science and Technology.
  12. ^ a b Derraik, José G: "The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a review", Marine Pollution Bulletin, 44(9), pp. 842–852, 2002; Teuten, E L: "Transport and release of chemicals from plastics to the environment and to wildlife", Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B – Biological Sciences, 364(1526), pp. 2027–2045, 2009
  13. ^ a b Akpan, Nsikan: "Microplastics Lodge in Crab Gills and Guts." Science News, 8 July 2014, https://www.sciencenews.org/article/microplastics-lodge-crab-gills-and-guts
  14. ^ Thompson, Richard C. (2004-05-07). "Lost at Sea: Where is All the Plastic". Science. 304 (5672): 838. doi:10.1126/science.1094559. PMID 15131299. ((cite journal)): |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  15. ^ Wright, Stephanie (February 13, 2013). "The physical impacts of microplastics on marine organisms: A review" (PDF). Environmental Pollution. doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2013.02.031.
  16. ^ Cite error: The named reference Apkan2014 was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  17. ^ World Wildlife Fund: “Unsustainable fishing”, 2010
  18. ^ Many additional researchers have found evidence that these fibers had become associated with metals, polycholorinated biphenols, and other toxic contaminants that then enter humans via consumption.<ref name = “GrossmanJan”
  19. ^ Barnes, David K: "Accumulation and fragmentation of plastic debris in global environments", Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 364, pp. 1985–1998, 2002, doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0205 PMID 19528051
  20. ^ Gregory, M R: "Environmental implications of plastic debris in marine settings – entanglement, ingestion, smothering, hangers-on, hitch-hiking and alien invasions", Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 364(1526), pp. 2013–2025, 2009
  21. ^ Martin, Ogonowski: "Ecological and ecotoxicological effects of microplastics and associated contaminants on aquatic biota", AquaBiota Water Research, 2015
  22. ^ Mato Y: "Plastic resin pellets as a transport medium for toxic chemicals in the marine environment", Environmental Science & Technology 35(2), pp. 318–324, 2001
  23. ^ Teuten, E L: "Transport and release of chemicals from plastics to the environment and to wildlife", Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B – Biological Sciences, 364(1526), pp. 2027–2045, 2009
  24. ^ Ross, Philip: “‘Microplastics’ In Great Lakes Pose ‘Very Real Threat’ To Humans and Animals”, International Business Times, 29 October 2013
  25. ^ Hellman, Melissa (June 24, 2014). "Illinois Bans Cosmetics Containing Microbeads". Time.