Since the mass production of plastics began in the 1940s, microplastic contamination of the marine environment has been a growing problem. Here, a review of the literature has been conducted with the following objectives: (1) to summarise the properties, nomenclature and sources of microplastics; (2) to discuss the routes by which microplastics enter the marine environment; (3) to evaluate the methods by which microplastics are detected in the marine environment; (4) to assess spatial and temporal trends of microplastic abundance; and (5) to discuss the environmental impact of microplastics. Microplastics are both abundant and widespread within the marine environment, found in their highest concentrations along coastlines and within mid-ocean gyres. Ingestion of microplastics has been demonstrated in a range of marine organisms, a process which may facilitate the transfer of chemical additives or hydrophobic waterborne pollutants to biota. We conclude by highlighting key future research areas for scientists and policymakers. Copyright © 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.