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Microplastics in freshwater ecosystems: what we know and what we need to know

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      While the use of plastic materials has generated huge societal benefits, the ‘plastic age’ comes with downsides: One issue of emerging concern is the accumulation of plastics in the aquatic environment. Here, so-called microplastics (MP), fragments smaller than 5 mm, are of special concern because they can be ingested throughout the food web more readily than larger particles. Focusing on freshwater MP, we briefly review the state of the science to identify gaps of knowledge and deduce research needs.

      State of the science

      Environmental scientists started investigating marine (micro)plastics in the early 2000s. Today, a wealth of studies demonstrates that MP have ubiquitously permeated the marine ecosystem, including the polar regions and the deep sea. MP ingestion has been documented for an increasing number of marine species. However, to date, only few studies investigate their biological effects.

      The majority of marine plastics are considered to originate from land-based sources, including surface waters. Although they may be important transport pathways of MP, data from freshwater ecosystems is scarce. So far, only few studies provide evidence for the presence of MP in rivers and lakes. Data on MP uptake by freshwater invertebrates and fish is very limited.

      Knowledge gaps

      While the research on marine MP is more advanced, there are immense gaps of knowledge regarding freshwater MP. Data on their abundance is fragmentary for large and absent for small surface waters. Likewise, relevant sources and the environmental fate remain to be investigated. Data on the biological effects of MP in freshwater species is completely lacking. The accumulation of other freshwater contaminants on MP is of special interest because ingestion might increase the chemical exposure. Again, data is unavailable on this important issue.


      MP represent freshwater contaminants of emerging concern. However, to assess the environmental risk associated with MP, comprehensive data on their abundance, fate, sources, and biological effects in freshwater ecosystems are needed. Establishing such data critically depends on a collaborative effort by environmental scientists from diverse disciplines (chemistry, hydrology, ecotoxicology, etc.) and, unsurprisingly, on the allocation of sufficient public funding.

      Related collections

      Most cited references 76

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      Accumulation and fragmentation of plastic debris in global environments.

      One of the most ubiquitous and long-lasting recent changes to the surface of our planet is the accumulation and fragmentation of plastics. Within just a few decades since mass production of plastic products commenced in the 1950s, plastic debris has accumulated in terrestrial environments, in the open ocean, on shorelines of even the most remote islands and in the deep sea. Annual clean-up operations, costing millions of pounds sterling, are now organized in many countries and on every continent. Here we document global plastics production and the accumulation of plastic waste. While plastics typically constitute approximately 10 per cent of discarded waste, they represent a much greater proportion of the debris accumulating on shorelines. Mega- and macro-plastics have accumulated in the highest densities in the Northern Hemisphere, adjacent to urban centres, in enclosed seas and at water convergences (fronts). We report lower densities on remote island shores, on the continental shelf seabed and the lowest densities (but still a documented presence) in the deep sea and Southern Ocean. The longevity of plastic is estimated to be hundreds to thousands of years, but is likely to be far longer in deep sea and non-surface polar environments. Plastic debris poses considerable threat by choking and starving wildlife, distributing non-native and potentially harmful organisms, absorbing toxic chemicals and degrading to micro-plastics that may subsequently be ingested. Well-established annual surveys on coasts and at sea have shown that trends in mega- and macro-plastic accumulation rates are no longer uniformly increasing: rather stable, increasing and decreasing trends have all been reported. The average size of plastic particles in the environment seems to be decreasing, and the abundance and global distribution of micro-plastic fragments have increased over the last few decades. However, the environmental consequences of such microscopic debris are still poorly understood.
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        Lost at sea: where is all the plastic?

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          Microplastics as contaminants in the marine environment: a review.

          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.

            Author and article information

            [1 ]Department of Aquatic Ecotoxicology, Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Max-von-Laue-Str. 13, Frankfurt, 60438 Germany
            [2 ]Catalan Institute for Water Research (ICRA), Girona, 17003 Spain
            [3 ]Department Biochemistry and Ecotoxicology, Federal Institute of Hydrology, Koblenz, 56002 Germany
            [4 ]Service Etat des Eaux Evaluation Ecologique, Agence de l’Eau Loire-Bretagne, Ploufragan, 22440 France
            [5 ]Water, Environment and Eco-technologies Division, Bureau de Recherches Géologiques et Minières (BRGM), Orléans, 45100 France
            [6 ]GéoHydrosystèmes Continentaux (GéHCO), Université Francois Rabelais de Tours, Tours, 37000 France
            [7 ]Institute of Environmental Systems Research, Universität Osnabrück, Osnabrück, 49074 Germany
            [8 ]Investigación y Proyectos Medio Ambiente S.L. (IPROMA), Castellón de la Plana, 12005 Spain
            [9 ]Interdisciplinary Centre of Marine and Environmental Research (CIIMAR), Porto, 4050-123 Portugal
            [10 ]Unit Marine and Coastal Systems, Deltares and Institute for Environmental Studies, VU University Amsterdam, Amsterdam, 1081 The Netherlands
            [11 ]Environment and Toxicology, DHI, Hørsholm, 2970 Denmark
            Environ Sci Eur
            Environ Sci Eur
            Environmental Sciences Europe
            Springer Berlin Heidelberg (Berlin/Heidelberg )
            9 July 2014
            9 July 2014
            : 26
            : 1
            5566174 12 10.1186/s12302-014-0012-7
            © Wagner et al.; licensee Springer 2014

            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 work is properly credited.

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