Plastics and Microplastics: Impacts in the Marine Environment



Accumulation of plastics and, more recently, microplastics, in the marine environment has become a global concern. Plastics are highly durable materials and this persistence coupled with increasing emissions to the environment has resulted in a wide-scale accumulation from shallow waters to the deep sea. However, it is important to recognise that plastic debris is a highly heterogeneous mix of different polymer types, sizes, shapes and sources, and all of these factors influence the type and probability of impact. A small proportion of these items is sufficiently large and they can be visualised by satellites from space, but it is now recognised that the most abundant size category are microplastics. Indeed, many scientists consider there will be even greater accumulations of plastic particles in the nano size range, but such particles are currently beyond the limit of analytical detection. There is clear evidence of impacts on wildlife, as well as economic harm, and there is growing concern about the potential for effects on human well-being. Over 700 species of marine organism are known to encounter plastics in the environment with clear evidence of physical harm from entanglement and ingestion. In addition, there is concern that plastics may present a toxicological hazard because they can transfer chemicals to organisms if ingested. However, there is currently little evidence that plastics provide an important vector for chemicals to wildlife compared to other pathways. There is also emerging evidence that plastic debris could have impacts on assemblages of organisms altering ecosystem processes. Despite this clear evidence of harm it is also clear that plastics as materials bring numerous societal benefits; however, unlike many of the challenges currently facing the ocean, the benefits of plastics could largely be achieved without emissions to the environment. In our view the solutions to this global environmental problem require a more responsible approach to the way we design, produce, use and dispose of plastics, so that we can realise the benefits of plastics without current levels of harm.


Marine plastic Marine litter Entanglement Plastic ingestion Impacts of marine plastic Macroplastics Microplastics Socio-economic impacts Biological interactions 

1 Introduction

Over the past 70 years plastic has revolutionised our lives. From medicine, computers, cars and food packaging many of us cannot imagine a life before plastic. Indeed, we rely on plastic so heavily now for convenience, low cost and performance in many cases; it would not be possible to replace it with any other material. Scientists have recognised for some time there is a need to better understand the biological implications of this durable synthetic polymer so widely used and often poorly disposed of. Its resistance to degradation and wide-ranging applications as a single-use material have resulted in an increasing volume of plastic entering into the marine environment as litter, as well as accidental loss and inputs through waste water (Jambeck et al. 2015; Napper and Thompson 2016). End-of-life consideration for plastic has not been a priority during the manufacturing process resulting in a large volume of single-use or unrecyclable plastic being manufactured. Through inadequate disposal and accidental loss plastic enters the marine environment at an ever-increasing rate. Lebreton and Andrady (2019) describe how, if no mitigation policies are introduced, global mismanaged plastic waste could increase from 60 and 99 million tonnes in 2015 to 155–265 million tonnes per year by 2060. Predictions such as these are modelled partially utilising long-term data series, of which few are available for marine plastic pollution. One such time series has recently been produced using data from the Continuous Plankton Recorder from 1957 to 2016 and covering over 6.5 million nautical miles. Based on records of when plastics have become entangled on a towed marine sampler, this consistent time series provides some of the earliest records of plastic entanglement, and is the first to confirm a significant increase in open ocean macroplastics (Ostle et al. 2019).

Marine plastic litter of all size classes is now recognised as a ubiquitous and potentially harmful pollutant worldwide in terrestrial, freshwater and marine environments (Lusher 2015; Hartmann et al. 2019) (Fig. 1). Pieces over 5 mm are termed macroplastic, but these will breakdown in size over time within the environment via the actions of UV, waves and through physical interaction with marine biota (Andrady 2011). Alternatively, marine plastics can enter the environment already microsized (<5 mm) via waste water and runoff (Jambeck et al. 2015). It is recognised that the most abundant size range of plastics in the oceans are the smallest (Browne et al. 2010); some scientists considering the greatest accumulation being in the nano size range (less than 0.1 μm), but below the levels of analytical detection (Science Advice for Policy by European 2019).
Fig. 1

Sources, pathways and impacts of marine plastic litter. (Image: © Madeleine Steer and Richard C. Thompson 2019. All rights reserved)

Once plastics enter the marine environment they become subject to the physical action of wind and ocean circulation, potentially transporting fragments over considerable horizontal and vertical distances (Galgani et al. 2015). Marine plastic litter has been reported from the deepest ocean trenches to the polar ice in both Antarctica and the Arctic (Woodall et al. 2014; Lusher et al. 2015b; Reed et al. 2018). Scientific research is working towards building a detailed picture of the spatial and temporal fluctuations of plastic litter worldwide. The effects of this litter are also becoming apparent and include: biological effects on individuals such as ingestion and entanglement by organisms potentially leading to ill health, lower fecundity, altered behaviour and death and the subsequent possibility for ecological effects on assemblages; and socio-economic impacts such as effects on tourism and fishing, habitat loss, maritime navigation, shipping (Beaumont et al. 2019) and also the effect on human well-being (Wyles et al. 2016) and food security (Barboza et al. 2018).

2 Impacts on Marine Life

Interaction of marine biota with plastic litter are widely documented, increasing from 700 species in 2012 to 817 in 2016 (Convention on Biological Diversity 2012 and 2016) and can result in severe harm leading to possible death or more subtle effects on behaviour and other ecological interactions, potentially threatening sensitive populations and ecosystems (Gregory 2009; Gall and Thompson 2015). Many of the affected species are identified as being at some degree of risk according to IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature); 54% of the 120 marine mammals species listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2014 were reported to have ingested and/or become entangled with marine litter (Werner et al. 2016). The impact of plastic varies according to the type and size of the debris and can occur at different levels of biological organisation in a wide range of habitats (Werner et al. 2016). It is likely that there are many more sublethal effects not recognised or unreported thus far. The severity of interactions between organisms and plastic litter depends on the physiology, feeding habit, size and behaviour of the animal involved, the location of the animal compared to plastic and the physical characteristics of the plastic itself.

2.1 Impacts of Macroplastic

Common interactions with macroplastic (over 5 mm in size) reported in literature include:
  • Entanglement of large marine mammals in items such as discarded fishing gear (Stelfox et al. 2016) and suitably shaped litter (Werner et al. 2016).

  • Ingestion of plastic particles possibly mistaken for food (Andrady 2011).

  • Crustaceans choosing small plastic items as suitable portable shelters (Benton 1995).

  • Hitch hiking of invasive species rafting on ocean plastic (Gregory 2009).

Studies have revealed interactions with plastics for 97 species in the Southeast Pacific, including 20 species of fish, 5 sea turtles, 53 seabirds, and 19 marine mammals (Thiel et al. 2018). It has been reported that 66% of cetaceans suffer adverse effects from plastic litter (Fossi et al. 2018), 55% of bird orders have been recorded as entangled in plastic with fishing gear accounting for 83% of the 265 species entangled in plastic. For example, over 95% of Northern Fulmars in the North Sea contain plastic litter in their stomachs, with 58% exceeding the OSPAR Ecological Quality Objective (EcoQO) of 0.1 g plastic per bird (van Franeker et al. 2011). Kühn et al. (2015) found in comparison to the comprehensive review by Laist (1997) the number of bird, turtle and mammal species with known entanglement reports increased from 89 (21%) to 161 (30%); 100% of marine turtles (7 of 7 species), 67% of seals (22 of 33 species), 31% of whales (25 of 80 species) and 25% of seabirds (103 of 406 species) with substantial increases in species records for fishes (89 species) and invertebrates (92 species). Baleen whales (69%; 9 of 13 species) and eared seals (100%, 13 of 13 species) appear to be the mammals most affected by entanglement.

2.1.1 Entanglement in Macroplastics

Specific examples of incidents of entanglement include over a thousand fur seals in Antarctica from 1989 to 2008 (Do Sul et al. 2011), 525 northern gannets over an 8 year period in Wales, UK (Votier et al. 2011), 53 sharks (acquainting to 0.18% of the sharks caught in nets protecting swimming beaches) in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa (Cliff et al. 2002) and 58 grey seals between 2004 and 2008 in Cornwall, UK (Allen et al. 2012). Acute entanglement can cause an immediate (within hours) and serious health threat to animals (Fig. 2). For example, if a marine mammal suffers entanglement preventing it from surfacing it will drown or it could become much more susceptible to predators or ship strikes. It is likely that a larger number of individuals (many unreported (Kühn et al. 2015)) may suffer from chronic long-term effects of entanglement altering the biological and ecological performance of an individual over time in a potentially accumulating amount (Werner et al. 2016). A number of negative sublethal effects have been reported, including tissue damage (skin lesions, death of muscle tissue (Orós et al. 2005), infections from open wounds), reduced mobility, agility, ability to ingest food and ability to digest food, all of which lead to reduced fitness, reproductive success and mobility (Werner et al. 2016).
Fig. 2

Examples of entanglement and ingestion of macroplastics in the UK. (a) Juvenile grey seal in Northumberland with fatal entanglement injury, (b) grey seal pup near Polzeath, Cornwall, entanglement in monofilament netting, rehabilitated at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary, (c) gannet rescued from Falmouth, Cornwall, having swallowed a fishing hook with monofilament line attached. Rehabilitated by Mousehole Bird Hospital, Cornwall, (d) common dolphin, Porthleven, Cornwall. Long-term entanglement in fishing net caused very poor condition, so animal was euthanised by a vet. (Photo credit: © 2019 British Divers Marine Life Rescue. All Rights Reserved)

Incidents of entanglement rely upon detection of animals either in distress or perished, accurate reporting and the collation of data; therefore, it is possible that figures obtained from literature are an underestimate of the extent of the issue. Duncan et al. (2017) conducted a global review of turtle entanglement firstly via a literature review and secondly via a questionnaire directly to the lead authors of papers documenting the impacts of marine debris on turtles. The literature review yielded 23 reports of marine turtle entanglement in anthropogenic debris, which included records for 6 species, in all ocean basins. Numbers of stranded turtles encountered by the 106 respondents to the questionnaire were in the thousands per year, with 5.5% of turtles encountered entangled, 90.6% of these dead. Of the experts questioned, 84% considered that entanglement could be causing population-level effects in some areas. Lost or discarded fishing materials, known as ‘ghost gear’, contributed to the majority of reported entanglements with debris from land-based sources in the distinct minority. Surveyed experts rated entanglement a greater threat to marine turtles than oil pollution, climate change and direct exploitation but less of a threat than plastic ingestion and fisheries bycatch.

2.1.2 Susceptibility of Entanglement with Macroplastics

The physical properties of plastics determine the likelihood and type of encounter with marine life. Shape, size, colour and polymer type will influence the capacity of an animal to become entangled. For instance, Butterworth et al. 2012 identified litter items that are most frequently associated with entanglement as net fragments, rope and line (e.g. gill and trawl nets, lost or discarded line for pots and traps), monofilament line, packaging bands, plastic circular rings and packaging such as multipack can rings. Furthermore, the location of the plastic will influence its availability. By looking at available data, the aforementioned study also identified entanglement geographical hotspots, e.g. the North Sea for grey seals, minke whales and gannets. Fishing gear is widely reported as the most common source of entanglement litter, and with an estimated 640,000 tons of fishing gear lost, abandoned or discarded annually world-wide may continue to pose a threat through ‘ghost’ fishing and entanglement for decades (Cheshire et al. 2009). For example, Sancho et al. (2003) considered lost tangle nets to catch an equivalent of around 5% of the total commercial catch in northern Spain, and the decline of deep water sharks in the North Atlantic has been linked to ghost fishing in the North Atlantic, indicating the potential for a population-level impact (Large et al. 2009).

2.1.3 Ingestion of Macroplastics

Incidents of ingestion of marine plastic litter in wild organisms are now common in the literature with a growing body of research suggesting the possible effects of ingestion for individuals. Modelling can, to a limited extent, enable scientists to scale-up effects of ingestion to population level allowing predictions of a longer term wider scale impact from marine litter ingestion. Despite this, there remains a significant level of uncertainty surrounding effects of ingestion of marine plastic litter mainly due to the complexity of the interactions.

The size class of the plastic ingested relates directly to the size of the organism in question. Macroplastic is usually ingested by larger organisms such as large fish, marine mammals, seabirds (Fig. 2), turtles and sharks. The accidental, intentional or secondary ingestion of marine litter may also include other materials such as wood or cardboard but it is plastic that is by far the most reported material found ingested by marine organisms (up to 90%) (Gall and Thompson 2015; Werner et al. 2016). Identifying the sources of plastics ingested by organisms is harder than for entanglement due to the fragmentation and degradation of particles. Different species ingest different types of particles; for example, loggerhead turtles are susceptible to ingest plastic bags mistaking them for jelly fish (Camedda et al. 2014), whilst baleen whales are believed to indiscriminately ingest plastic litter whilst filter feeding from the water column (Lusher et al. 2015a). The feeding strategy of fish species has been identified as correlating to the types of plastic ingested (Anastasopoulou et al. 2013; Lusher et al. 2013; Romeo et al. 2015). Similarly, the presence of plastic in seabirds is clearly correlated to feeding strategy (Ryan 1987; Moser and Lee 1992).

Between 1997 and 2015 the number of species found to have ingested plastic litter increased from 177 to 331 (Laist 1997; Kühn et al. 2015). The observed increase in incidents is likely not only to be down to an ever-increasing volume of plastic in the oceans but also due to the substantial increase in research effort. Some groups have emerged as particularly susceptible to ingestion such as the tubenoses (Procellariiformes: albatrosses, shearwaters, petrels, storm- and diving-petrels; 84 out of 141), (Werner et al. 2016). Although this is a common finding in the literature, it is important to consider the possibility of limitations in research findings. The second most common group of birds to ingest plastic are the Charadriiformes, which include waders, skuas, gulls, terns and auks (55 of 139 species). It is noted that most tubenosed seabirds tend to retain debris in a muscular stomach for grinding and ultimate passage through the intestines whilst most Charadriiformes tend to regularly regurgitate poorly digestible components leading to the possibility that plastic is not readily retained but has been ingested. Other examples of macroplastic ingestion include all 7 species of turtle where in a review by Schuyler et al. (2016) the incidence of ingestion varied between species from 15% to 50%. Olive Ridley turtles were the most at-risk species and there was no difference in plastic ingestion rates between turtles stranded versus those caught as bycatch suggesting no bias in plastic ingestion for stranded animals. Stranded animals provide a unique opportunity to collect ecological data for species and habitats, including stomach contents for dietary analysis and marine debris ingestions. Such examples include sperm whales in the Mediterranean Sea (Unger et al. 2016), true beaked whales off the west coast of Ireland (Lusher et al. 2015a) and brown boobies (Sula leucogaster) and masked boobies (Sula dactylatra) on the Clipperton Atoll in the Pacific Ocean (Claro et al. 2019).

The direct effect of macroplastic ingestion is hard to evidence due to the common identification of multiple factors involved in mortality; therefore, producing a link between mortality or poor condition of individuals and plastic ingestion is rare in the literature. If the oesophagus, stomach or intestines become completely blocked with one or more particles, then rapid death is likely. This is likely to be more apparent during a necropsy than the multiple symptoms possibly present after long-term presence of plastic in an individual’s digestive tract. For example, Brandão et al. (2011) report the perforation of the stomach wall in a Magellanic penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus) by a straw that had been ingested and subsequently caused acute and fatal injury. Whilst long-term exposure to plastic in the digestive tract could produce a number of symptoms such as poor condition, weight loss, parasites and lesions on stomach or gut wall. In this instance determining the plastic present in the stomach or gut during necropsy that was responsible for death is very challenging. Ultimately, other factors often play a role (such as age and diet) but the initial plastic ingested caused the problem that snowballed resulting in death.

2.1.4 Other Impacts of Macroplastic

Other impacts of macroplastic litter on marine life include its ability to act as a vector for transport of organisms. Some consider that the passage of non-native biota on litter floating in the water column across potentially large distances may pose a serious threat. The settlement of nonindigenous species has the potential to alter habitats, changing native species dynamics, killing large numbers of native species and/or competing with them, together with acting as vectors of diseases (Werner et al. 2016). Organisms have been seen utilising marine plastic litter as substrates to hide in, adhere to or settle on resulting in transportation large distances across oceans to new habitats (Gregory 2009; Gall and Thompson 2015). This is not a new phenomenon as rafts of wood, seaweed and other marine debris provide similar substrates to organisms. Plastic is especially attractive to rafters because of its abundance, the variety of shapes and sizes adrift, its buoyant nature and the presence of a biofilm creating a proliferation of invasive species. A total of 387 taxa, including pro- and eukaryotic microorganisms, seaweeds and invertebrates have been found rafting on floating litter, with species of bryozoans, crustaceans, molluscs and cnidarians most frequently reported (Kiessling et al. 2015). Zettler et al. (2013) identified a diverse microbial community of heterotrophs, autotrophs, predators, and symbionts, a community referred to as the ‘Plastisphere’. Pits visualised in the plastic litter surface conformed to bacterial shapes suggesting active hydrolysis of the hydrocarbon polymer. Plastisphere communities were distinct from surrounding surface water suggesting plastic litter provides a novel ecological habitat. Members of the genus Vibrio were present on some samples confirming the suggestion that harmful bacteria could be transported into fragile habitats.

Marine plastic litter can also modify species assemblages in habitats by introducing an unnatural percentage of hard substrate to an environment (e.g. benthic habitats), changing the species assemblage and dynamics (Green et al. 2015; Werner et al. 2016). Smothering is another effect of plastic film and sheets, leading to reduced fitness and even death of the organisms lying under the plastic through reduced oxygen levels and reduced photosynthesis, which in turn alters habitats and communities (e.g. coral (Richards and Beger 2011)).

2.2 Microplastics

Microplastics (between 0.1 μm and 5 mm) can be either manufactured small and are transported into the marine environment through waste water (primary) (Napper et al. 2015), run off and rivers or are the result of weathering and physical breakdown of larger macroplastic particles over time in the marine environment or on land (secondary) (Jambeck et al. 2015). Particles can range in shape (fragments, beads, films, fibres), colour and plastic characteristic known as polymer. The inherent microscopic nature of microplastic means that our knowledge on the scale and extent of the associated problems surrounding the pollutant decreases somewhat with the size of the plastic particles. There are significant challenges when trying to isolate microplastic particles from environmental substrates such as water, sediment and biota. That said, there is a growing body of research documenting the spatial and temporal trends in microplastics, its sources and its effects on biota (Cole et al. 2011).

2.2.1 Ingestion of Microplastics

Microplastic pollution (Fig. 3) poses a threat to marine life via ingestion and entanglement (Wright et al. 2013b). Continuous fragmentation and degradation of microplastics in the marine environment produces a wide range of particle sizes (Enders et al. 2015), which can be ingested by an equally large range of marine organisms, for example: humpback whales (Besseling et al. 2015), all 7 species of marine turtle (Duncan et al. 2017), harbour seal (Rebolledo et al. 2013), Humboldt squid (Braid et al. 2012), numerous pelagic and demersal small and large fish (Lusher et al. 2013; Nadal et al. 2016; Tanaka and Takada 2016), blue mussel and lugworms (Van Cauwenberghe et al. 2015), gooseneck barnacle (Goldstein and Goodwin 2013), Norway lobster (Murray and Cowie 2011), zooplankton (Desforges et al. 2015) (Fig. 4) and fish larvae (Steer et al. 2017). Trophic transfer is also considered to be a significant pathway for microplastics in higher trophic levels (Lusher et al. 2015a; Nelms et al. 2018).
Fig. 3

Strandline covered in plastic. Tregantle beach, Whitsands, Cornwall, UK. (Photo credit: © 2019 Rob Arnold. All rights reserved)

Fig. 4

Microplastics of different sizes can be ingested, egested and adhere to a range of zooplankton, as visualised using fluorescence microscopy using very high dose concentrations: (main picture) the copepod Centropages typicus containing 7.3 μm polystyrene (PS) beads (dorsal view); (top left) a D-stage bivalve larvae containing 7.3 μm PS beads (dorsal view); (bottom left) a Porcellanid (decapod) larvae, containing 30.6 μm PS beads (lateral view). (Reprinted with permission from Cole et al. (2013). Copyright 2013 American Chemical Society)

2.2.2 Impacts from Ingestion of Microplastics

Reports of ingestion of microplastics in wild organisms are now frequent in peer reviewed literature; however, less understood are the impacts of ingestion of these particles and fibres. The physiological impacts of ingestion of microplastic can be comparatively more subtle than macroplastic making it harder to detect and trace back to effects of the plastic itself. With such a large range of particle shapes, sizes and types of plastic present as marine litter, the resultant impacts from ingestion will vary greatly. To date some of the effects of microplastic ingestion on individual animals include decreased energy reserves (Wright et al. 2013a), inflammatory response (Von Moos et al. 2012), hepatic stress (Rochman et al. 2013), reduced reproduction and off spring performance (Sussarellu et al. 2016), inflammation in the liver and oxidative stress (Lu et al. 2016), decreased predatory performance (de Sá et al. 2015) and decreased feeding, lipid accumulation and premature moulting in copepods (Cole et al. 2019).

Furthermore, the age of the microplastic (how long it has been in the marine environment for) will influence the characteristics of its associated biofilm and adhered chemicals (from the surrounding water) and the plastics’ original use will determine the chemicals added during manufacture that can then leach out once ingested. This myriad of plastic characteristics will ultimately influence its impact, coupled with its temporal and spatial distribution compared to the organism in question and its feeding strategy. Deciphering this in situ in wild organisms is beyond the scope of current research techniques, so scientists currently rely on experimental approaches. Here, organisms are exposed to microplastics with variable characteristics under experimental conditions and physiological and/or behavioural responses are measured. Traditionally these experiments are run with concentrations of the toxin in question at low, moderate and high values. However with regard to microplastics it is possible that high concentrations are not relevant in determining the response to the pollutant in the wild, although not ruled out due to the constraints of current analytical methods for detection of microplastics in complicated environmental matrices (Science Advice for Policy by European 2019). It is critical that we start to understand the responses of individuals in the wild to the microplastics they are ingesting in order to enforce any mitigation plans. For this we need environmentally relevant experimental designs. By using the data produced from ingestion studies in the wild and reports of waterborne and sediment microplastic characteristics, scientists can develop experimental designs utilising the relevant size, shape, colour, age and concentration of microplastic particles, therefore reducing the number of caveats for the results obtained. In principle, this sounds relatively simple; however, in practice it is not that easy. One of the most challenging aspects of microplastic ecotoxicological experiments is preparing the plastic particles. Mirroring particles found in the natural environment is very challenging as there are so many variations. Some recent studies have started to examine fibres as these are more commonly reported ingested in wild organisms and in the water column (Jemec et al. 2016; Ziajahromi et al. 2017; Cole et al. 2019).

Accumulation and translocation of microplastics once ingested has the potential to affect the resultant physical impact (Wright et al. 2013b). Studies have generally concentrated on laboratory-based experiments on invertebrates, the first of which reported microplastic translocating to the circulatory system in mussels (Browne et al. 2008). Since then accumulation of microplastics have been observed in the gut, digestive tract and gills of species such as Eastern oyster, European green crab, purple sea urchin, European sea bass and the clam Scrobicularia plana. Accumulation of microplastic particles in the digestive system of organisms in the field has been observed in lug worm, Norway lobster, Atlantic deep sea scallop and the copepod Tigriopus japonicas. Accumulation of microplastics through translocation of particles into other tissues of the body has been observed in blue mussels (lymphatic system), zebra fish (liver), Mediterranean mussel (digestive tissues) and for nanoplastics in scallops (whole body) with retention of particles for as long as weeks (Al-Sid-Cheikh et al. 2018; Ribeiro et al. 2019). More research is required to ascertain the effects of different polymer types and the implications of long-term exposure such as that experienced in the wild.

2.2.3 Associated Contaminants on Microplastics

In addition to the physical effects of plastic on organisms, there are concerns that plastics may act as a vector for the transport of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), including those from manufacture but also chemicals sorbed from sea water (Teuten et al. 2007; Andrady 2011). Toxicity of particles is related to:
  1. 1.

    Additives incorporated at the time of manufacture, e.g. flame retardants.

  2. 2.

    Sorbed chemicals (from surrounding water/sediment).


Sea water typically contains low levels of POPs such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA); however, they have very large water-polymer distribution coefficients in favour of the plastic. This means that microsized plastic (with high surface area to volume ratio) can readily accumulate POPs (Andrady 2011), concentrating them several orders of magnitude higher than the levels found in their surrounding environment (Mato et al. 2001; Rodrigues et al. 2019). Modelling the transfer of sorbed organic contaminants from microplastics to marine life allows scientists to evaluate the risks to individuals and food webs. Bakir et al. (2016) suggest there is negligible impact on transfer to biota under both relevant and worst-case scenarios. Furthermore, Diepens et al. (2016) confirmed ingested microplastics can increase or decrease uptake of organic chemicals (dependent on polymer type, species properties, chemical characteristics and equilibrium state) and thus that the vector effect, if any, is context dependent. They also suggested that microplastics would not biomagnify in the food web (biomagnification is the increasing concentration of a substance in the tissues of tolerant organisms at successively higher levels in a food chain).

Microplastics also attract a rich diversity of microbes to their surface. Recent research has described particles providing a substrate for horizontal gene transfer that could distinctly affect the ecology of aquatic microbial communities on a global scale. The spread of antibiotic resistance through microplastics could have profound consequences for the evolution of aquatic bacteria and poses a neglected hazard for human health (Arias-Andres et al. 2018).

2.3 Nanoplastics

Once in the marine environment microplastics are exposed to mechanical weathering from UV exposure and wave action, and most probably further breaking down particles into nanoparticles (less than 0.1 μm). Current analytical methods are not able to identify and isolate nanoparticles from environmental matrices; however, some experimental work has identified the possibility for nanoplastic to accumulate in the environment. Koelmans et al. (2015) demonstrated that expanded polystyrene would fragment into micro- and nanosize pieces in experiments involving a month of accelerated mechanical abrasion with glass beads and sand. Lambert and Wagner (2016) observed the formation of nanoplastics during the degradation of a polystyrene disposable coffee cup lid and Gigault et al. (2016) provided evidence of nanoplastic occurrence due to solar light degradation of marine microplastics under controlled and environmentally representative conditions. In addition, many manufactured products contain nanoplastic including paints, adhesives, coatings, biomedical products, electronics and cosmetics (Vance et al. 2015; Hernandez et al. 2017) which, due to their small size, are likely to enter the marine environment via rivers, run off and waste water. Given the durability of plastic and the rate at which plastic is entering the world’s oceans, it is likely that significant accumulations of nanoplastics are mounting. A number of studies have assessed uptake and effects of nanoplastic on marine organisms; however they have used concentrations of particles up to seven orders of magnitude more than those predicted in the environment. Recently, Al-Sid-Cheikh et al. (2018) used environmentally relevant concentrations of radiolabelled nanopolystyrene to assess uptake, distribution and depuration of particles in the Scallop Pecten maximus (Fig. 5). Uptake was rapid and greater for 24 nm sized particles than for 250 nm particles. After 6 h, autoradiography showed accumulation of 250 nm nanoplastics in the intestine, whilst the 24 nm particles were dispersed throughout the whole body, possibly indicating some translocation across epithelial membranes. Depuration was also relatively rapid for both sizes; 24 nm particles were no longer detectable after 14 days, although some 250 nm particles were still detectable after 48 days. This move towards using environmentally relevant concentrations is an important step in our understanding of the ultimate impacts these plastics may have on all levels of biological organisation.
Fig. 5

Autoradiograph of nanoplastics ingested by Scallops (Al-Sid-Cheikh et al. 2018). (Reproduced with the permission of ACS Publications, please contact ACS for further reproduction)

2.4 Factors Influencing the Impact of Plastic in the Marine Environment

The abundance of plastic litter within habitats is the major driver in determining its impact on biota. Some areas are more heavily polluted than others, and if these areas coincide with significant populations of organisms vulnerable to interaction with plastic (correct size to ingest the particle, susceptible feeding strategy, highly mobile species with a high risk of entanglement), there will be a greater risk from the plastic litter than in areas of low concentrations of plastic pollution and animal populations. This is however a simplified outlook and, in reality, interactions are likely to be far more complicated. Plastics are considered very durable in the marine environment, can be transported across substantial distances and migrate vertically within the water column (Clark et al. 2016). For example, microplastics in arctic ice may be released on melting and so where they were previously inaccessible to organisms they can become bioavailable once more (Obbard et al. 2014; Bergmann et al. 2016). Likewise, plastic in the gut of an animal can remain in the animal for an extended period of time whilst being transported spatially, then either excreted or released when the animal dies, possibly sinking out of the epipelagic zone. One of the most compelling theories to date is that of the deep ocean plastic sinks (Woodall et al. 2014). Numerous reports have emerged suggesting that there are far higher concentrations of plastic in the deep ocean than coastal areas, suggesting a net transport and accumulation effect (Courtene-Jones et al. 2017; Bergmann et al. 2018).

3 Impact of Marine Plastics on Socio-economics, Human Health and Well-Being

Marine litter not only poses a threat to marine life but also has negative repercussions for the aesthetics of the oceans affecting tourism and recreation and directly or indirectly impacting upon productivity in terms of commercial fisheries and industrial productivity, termed socio-economic impacts. Marine ecosystems provide a number of ecosystem services (the benefits people obtain from nature) including food provision, carbon storage, waste detoxification and cultural benefits (Worm et al. 2006) and any threat to these provisions has the potential to impact human well-being (Naeem et al. 2016). Furthermore marine plastic is a trans-boundary problem, resulting in costs to countries that may be far from the point of origin of the debris.

3.1 Socio-economic

Historical studies have concentrated on the direct costs that are easily measured (McIlgorm et al. 2011) with very little research on the socio-economic impact on ecosystem services and provisions. Kirkley and McConnell (1997) highlight the need to produce strategies which account for the economic loss due to decreased ecological function arising from marine debris and Richards and Beger (2011) identified a significant negative relationship between the level of marine debris cover and coral cover, with coral cover and species diversity decreasing with increasing debris abundance on Majuro Atoll. More recently, Beaumont et al. (2019) conducted a comprehensive literature review of global marine plastic research and produced a global assessment of the ecological, ecosystem service and social and economic impacts of marine plastic. The study identified impacts on three critical ecosystem services:
  1. 1.

    Provision of fisheries, aquaculture and materials for agricultural use.

  2. 2.

    Heritage (marine plastic pollution may result in a widespread negative impact on charismatic species, with an accompanying loss of human well-being).

  3. 3.

    Experiential recreation.


3.1.1 Fishing Industry

Demersal and pelagic fish stocks have considerable ecological and economic value, whilst also widely reported to have ingested microplastics (Lusher et al. 2013; Neves et al. 2015; Bellas et al. 2016). Global annual fisheries revenue fluctuate around US $100 billion supporting about 12% of the world population, and providing 2.9 billion people with 20% of their animal protein (Lam et al. 2016). The potential negative impact of marine plastic litter on fish stocks will grow as marine plastic concentrations increase. Furthermore, the direct costs to fishing boats from fouled propellers, obstructed cooling systems, lost gear, loss of earnings from reduced fishing time and poor catches due to litter fouling in nets are rarely studied. For example, it has been reported that the Scottish fishing industry suffer losses amounting to between US $15 million and US $17 million per year (Ten Brink et al. 2009) and 92% of Shetland (UK) fishermen report that they have experienced problems associated with accumulated debris in their nets (Hall 2000). Gilardi et al. (2010) assessed the ability of lost gill nets to ghost fish in Puget Sound, USA, and performed a cost-benefit analysis which reported that entanglement of Dungeness crab by a single net could cost the commercial fishery US $19,656, compared to US $1358 to remove the net and preventing it from ghost fishing. Aquaculture could also see a negative impact due to marine plastics as shellfish species such as mussels, oysters and scallops indiscriminately filter feed sea water in close proximity to sources of microplastics such as waste water and surface run off in coastal and estuarine regions.

3.1.2 Tourism

Loss of tourism as people choose less littered beaches and the cost of cleaning beaches of litter and its disposal are also a substantial negative impact from marine plastic. A study by Tudor and Williams (2006) in Wales, UK, report that beach choice was primarily determined by clean, litter-free sand and seawater and 67% of respondents rate a beach as ‘important’ or ‘very important’ to their holiday. There is a considerable economic cost involved in keeping beaches clean and safe from litter. With no standardised method for reporting costs, quantifying the data is however difficult. A 2009 estimate in the UK suggests the total cost of marine litter removal to all UK local authorities is approximately £14 million per year (OSPAR 2009); however, this figure is likely to have risen considerably in recent years due to the increase in plastics manufactured (348 million tonnes in 2017 compared to 335 million in 2016, not including polyethylene terephthalate, polyamide and polyacryl fibres) (Plastic Europe 2018). Volunteer beach cleans are becoming increasingly popular with a 109% increase in the number of people participating in beach cleans in the UK between 2017 and 2018 (Marine Conservation Society 2018).

3.1.3 Other Maritime Industry

Marine litter provides a navigational hazard to all maritime traffic, from shipping to recreational users. Entanglement in fishing gear, ropes and lines present a key concern, but also plastic bags can block water intakes for cooling systems and benthic debris can foul anchors and equipment endangering both the vessel and its crew (Fig. 6). In 2005, a Russian submarine became entangled in derelict fishing nets 180 m below the surface for 4 days until an international rescue effort managed to cut it free. A passenger ferry travelling off the west coast of Korea in 1993 became entangled in 10 mm nylon rope, which coiled around both propeller shafts and the right propeller causing the vessel to turn suddenly, capsize and sink, killing 292 of the 362 passengers on board (Mouat et al. 2010). In June 2017, whilst dredging the main channel into Warren Point Port, Carlingford Loch, Northern Ireland, the Royal Boskalis Westminster dredger ‘Shoalway’ was fouled during dredging operations by substantial fishing gear. The steel wire reinforced nylon gear was drawn into the dredging apparatus which then fouled the propeller, stopping the engine immediately whilst the dredger was in the shipping lane. Unable to manoeuvre, the ship was at anchor for 2 days whilst a team of divers used welding gear to remove the melted wire and rope from the propeller and shaft at a total cost of over £100,000 in lost revenue and removing the fishing gear (personal communication).
Fig. 6

Plastic fouled intake of jet propulsion system of commercial survey boat in Royal Clarence Marina, Gosport, during Ministry of Defence survey, March 2018. Cost of fouling totalled £500 (half a day survey and lift out). (Photo credit: © 2019 Russ Craig. All rights reserved)

3.2 Human Health and Well-Being

Marine plastic litter also has the potential to have negative implications for human health. Wyles et al. (2016) describe how litter can undermine the psychological benefits that the coast ordinarily provides. The presence of microplastic in food could lead to concerns because of perceived rather than actual exposure of humans to the associated toxins. Fish and shellfish for human consumption have been found to contain microplastics, in particular fibres; however, in fish they are mostly contained within the stomach and intestines and therefore removed before human consumption. Shellfish such as mussels, oysters, scallops and small fish (e.g. anchovy) are of greater concern as we consume the whole animal (Cole et al. 2011). It is however important to consider the context of such ingestion and Catarino et al. (2018) describe how the potential for humans to ingest fibres is greater from household dust than from eating plastic contaminated mussels. Dris et al. (2015) report 29–280 particles, mostly fibres, in a square meter per day in Paris from atmospheric fallout, the sources of which could include synthetic textiles, erosion of synthetic rubber tyres, city dust, materials in buildings, waste incineration, landfills (Dris et al. 2016), synthetic particles used in horticultural soils (e.g. polystyrene peat), and sewage sludge used as fertiliser (Ng et al. 2018). Research into airborne plastics is however in its infancy and impacts on human health are currently uncertain.

4 Conclusion

There is no doubt that marine plastics pose a significant threat to marine life, the economy and human health and well-being. Moving forward there is a need to reduce these impacts, especially those from single-use plastics which offer short-lived benefit but considerable persistence as waste. This could be achieved by designing items to ensure the plastic has a higher value after use, therefore ensuring reuse. In short, we need to use plastic in a more circular manner decoupling consumption from fossil oil and gas and utilising end-of-life plastic as a feed stock for new production whilst also using less.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Plymouth, Marine Biology and Ecology Research Centre, International Marine Litter Research UnitPlymouthUK

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