Members' Research Service By / June 29, 2016

Microplastic pollution

Written by Dessislava Yougova, Microplastics, items smaller than 5mm in diameter, are widespread in the marine environment. They enter directly…

© bigmagic / Fotolia

Written by Dessislava Yougova,

Moorhen nest and plastic pollution
© bigmagic / Fotolia

Microplastics, items smaller than 5mm in diameter, are widespread in the marine environment. They enter directly as fragments from a variety of sources (cosmetics, clothing, industrial processes) or indirectly as a result of the disintegration of larger plastic pieces.

Microplastics are of environmental concern because their size renders them accessible to a wide range of organisms (seabirds, fish, mussels, lugworms and zooplankton). Plastic particles can provoke physical harm, but they tend also to stockpile persistent, bioaccumulating and toxic contaminants which are directly ingestible by marine organisms.

Microplastic pollution has been an issue for a number of years in the marine research field. Recent scientific investigations in Europe revealed the presence of microplastic residues also in fresh water systems, including drinking water and wastewater treatment.

The issue of microplastics in cosmetics is also coming up on the environmental agenda. Researchers have pointed out that microplastic particles which are found in personal care products (exfoliants or cleansers) are reaching the marine environment via the wastewater from consumers’ baths, showers, etc. An NGO-led campaign, “Beat the microbead” , has raised the alarm with the aim of convincing major companies to voluntarily remove plastic microbeads from their products.

In a Written declaration on the reduction of microplastic pollution (1 February 2016), Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) urged the Commission to address the issue of plastic microbeads in personal care products, in line with the EU’s role in protecting the environment. The EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive has already stated that microplastics contribute to the serious problem of marine litter. The MEPs also noted that in the Resolution of 14 January 2014 on a European strategy on plastic waste in the environment , the European Parliament called for single use plastics that cannot be recycled, such as plastic microbeads, to be phased out of the market or banned outright.


Marine litter: Microplastics , Kirsten Isensee, Luis Valdes, GSDR, 2015, 3 p.
This brief overviews the microplastics issue, its scientific background and different sources of plastic litter in the ocean, as well as the future actions and recommendations on international level.

News feature: Microplastics present pollution puzzle , Alla Katsnelson, in: PNAS , vol. 112, no. 24, June 2015, 4 p.
This article describes the scientific approach to assess the environmental damage caused by microplastics and concludes that “this is only the start of thinking about the problem in a rigorous way”.

Plastic debris in the ocean , UNEP, 2014, 6 p.
This overview points out the growing concern about microplastics and the need of cooperation at international, regional and national levels. It highlights the responsibility of businesses to reduce inputs of plastic debris at the source.

Microplastics , UNEP, 2013, 8 p.
This paper overviews the sources of microplastic pollution and the effects, physical and chemical, on the marine environment. The Global Partnership on Marine Litter (GPML) is also introduced.


Sources, fate and effects of microplastics in the marine environment: a global assessment , GESAMP, 2015, 98 p.
This assessment report provides an introduction to the problem of microplastics in the marine environment. Their potential physical and chemical impacts, and associated contaminants, are discussed in detail. The report takes account also of the social dimension of the problem and concludes with action-orientated recommendations. The aim is “to provide an improved evidence base, to support policy and management decisions on measures that might be adopted to reduce the input of microplastics to the oceans”.

Plastic and microplastic in the environment , Philipp Hohenblum, Bettina Liebmann, Marcel Liedermann, Umweltbundesamt, Vienna 2015, 31 p.
This report summarizes a study investigating plastic and microplastic particles in the flow of the Danube River in Austria. It also discusses the definition of microplastics and describes their impacts on the marine environment as well as on the freshwater system.

Plastic debris in the ocean: The characterization of marine plastics and their environmental impacts : Situation analysis report, Florian Thevenon, Chris Carroll, João Sousa (editors), IUCN, 2014, 54 p.
This report was conducted within the framework of the “Action for an ocean free of microplastics”. Microplastic pollution affecting different aquatic environments is considered as a part of the plastic litter issue. Sampling and analyzing of microplastics in the marine environment is discussed in separate chapter.

Reports for the European Commission

Study to support the development of measures to combat a range of marine litter sources , Eunomia, January 2016, 432 p.
This study investigates two key areas of marine debris research: litter from sea-based sources and microplastic litter from cosmetic products. The aim, regarding microplastics issue, is to quantify the problem at an EU level and to analyse existing legal instruments and options for ban. The report outlines manufacturers’ commitments and points out also some significant sources from products and materials that are not currently recognised by the cosmetics industry as a source of microplastics.

Identification and assessment of riverine input of (marine) litter , Eunomia [et al.], April 2015, 208 p.
This report summarizes findings of the project SFRA0025 aiming to investigate the level of pollution in EU rivers from plastic litter and to estimate the level of inputs of plastic litter from the rivers into four European regional seas.

Marine litter study to support the establishment of an initial quantitative headline reduction target , Arcadis, 2014, 315 p.
The aim of this report is to support the development of a marine litter reduction target at EU level that could be used for benchmarking progress towards good environmental status. Microplastic pollution and its effects is considered as a part of the marine litter issue.

Scientific papers

Microplastics in the aquatic and terrestrial environment: sources (with a specific focus on personal care products), fate and effects , Karen Duis, Anja Coors, in: Environmental Sciences Europe , 28:2, January 2016, 25 p.
This article evaluates currently available information on sources, fate and occurrence of microplastics in the aquatic and terrestrial environment, as well as possible effects on aquatic and terrestrial organisms. The contribution of microplastics from personal care products to the overall pollution of the environment is analyzed. The conclusion is that “in view of the persistence of microplastics in the environment, the high concentrations measured at some environmental sites and the prospective of strongly increasing concentrations, the release of plastics into the environment should be reduced in a broad and global effort regardless of a proof of an environmental risk”.

Microplastics in fresh water resources : science brief, Global Water Research Coalition (GWRC), September 2015, 8 p.
This brief compiles the current state of knowledge on the subject of microplastics regarding especially their occurrence in freshwater and the implications for wastewater treatment.

Scientific evidence supports a ban on microbeads , Chelsea M. Rochman [et al.], in: Environmental Science and Technology , 49:18, September 2015, 3 p.
In this article, scientists from seven institutions argue that there is scientific evidence to remove the plastic microbeads from personal care products. The researchers estimated that “8 trillion microbeads per day are being emitted into aquatic habitats in the United States. The other 99 percent of the microbeads end up in sludge from sewage plants, which is often spread over areas of land. Many of those microbeads can then make their way into streams and oceans through runoff”.

Beyond the ocean: contamination of freshwater ecosystems with (micro-) plastic particles, Rachid Dris [et al.], in: Environmental Chemistry , 12:5, August 2015 – abstract and full text
This article reviews recent findings on microplastics in continental waters (sediments, lakes and rivers). It discusses sampling strategies, sample treatment and reliable analytical methods to identify microplastics.

Marine Anthropogenic Litter , Melanie Bergmann, Lars Gutow, Michael Klages (editors), Springer, 2015 – Part III Microplastics, 158 p.
The 3d part of the book analyses the sources, pathways, distribution and effects of microplastic pollution in the marine environment. The methodology used for the detection and identification of microplastics, the modeling of the role of microplastics in bioaccumulation of organic chemicals to marine aquatic organisms and the nanoplastics in the aquatic environment are discussed.

Microplastics in freshwater ecosystems: what we know and what we need to know , Martin Wagner [et al.], in: Environmental Sciences Europe , 26:12, July 2014, 9 p.
Focusing on microplastics in freshwater, this paper reviews the state of the science in order to identify gaps of knowledge and to deduce research needs. It discusses impact of microplastics on freshwater species, as vector for other contaminants and for exotic species and pathogens.

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