Document Type



Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Publication Date



JGR Oceans






Society has become increasingly reliant on plastics since commercial production began in about 1950. Their versatility, stability, light weight, and low production costs have fueled global demand. Most plastics are initially used and discarded on land. Nonetheless, the amount of microplastics in some oceanic compartments is predicted to double by 2030. To solve this global problem, we must understand plastic composition, physical forms, uses, transport, and fragmentation into microplastics (and nanoplastics). Plastic debris/microplastics arise from land disposal, wastewater treatment, tire wear, paint failure, textile washing, and at‐sea losses. Riverine and atmospheric transport, storm water, and disasters facilitate releases. In surface waters plastics/microplastics weather, biofoul, aggregate, and sink, are ingested by organisms and redistributed by currents. Ocean sediments are likely the ultimate destination. Plastics release additives, concentrate environmental contaminants, and serve as substrates for biofilms, including exotic and pathogenic species. Microplastic abundance increases as fragment size decreases, as does the proportion of organisms capable of ingesting them. Particlesμm may penetrate cell membranes, exacerbating risks. Exposure can compromise feeding, metabolic processes, reproduction, and behavior. But more investigation is required to draw definitive conclusions. Human ingestion of contaminated seafood and water is a concern. Microplastics indoors present yet uncharacterized risks, magnified by the time we spend inside (>90%) and the abundance of polymeric products therein. Scientific challenges include improving microplastic sampling and characterization approaches, understanding long‐term behavior, additive bioavailability, and organismal and ecosystem health risks. Solutions include improving globally based pollution prevention, developing degradable polymers and additives, and reducing consumption/expanding plastic reuse.

DATA available at:




Additives, disasters, ingestion, biofilms, contaminants, surface water

Publication Statement

© American Geophysical Union