Microplastics are pieces of plastic debris <5 mm in diameter. They enter the environment from a variety of sources including the direct input of small pieces such as exfoliating beads used in cosmetics and as a consequence of the fragmentation of larger items of debris. A range of common polymers, including polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, and polyvinyl chloride, are present in the environment as microplastic particles. Microplastics are widely distributed in marine and freshwater habitats. They have been reported on shorelines from the poles to the equator; they are present at the sea surface and have accumulated in ocean systems far from land. Microplastics are also present in substantial quantities on the seabed. A wide range of organisms including birds, fish, and invertebrates are known to ingest microplastics and for some species it is clear that a substantial proportion of the population have microplastic in their digestive tract. The extent to which this might have harmful effects is not clear; however, the widespread encounter rate indicates that substantial quantities of microplastic may be distributed within living organisms themselves as well as in the habitats in which they live. Our understanding about the long-term fate of microplastics is relatively limited. Some habitats such as the deep sea may be an ultimate sink for the accumulation of plastic debris at sea; indeed, some recent evidence indicates quantities in the deep sea can be greater than at the sea surface. It has also been suggested that microplastics might be susceptible to biodegradation by microorganisms; however, this is yet to be established and the prevailing view is that even if emissions of debris to the environment are substantially reduced, the abundance of microplastics will increase over the next few decades. However, it is also clear that the benefits which plastics bring to society can be realized without the need for emissions of end-of-life plastics to the ocean. To some extent the accumulation of microplastic debris in the environment is a symptom of an outdated business model. There are solutions at hand and many synergistic benefits can be achieved in terms of both waste reduction and sustainable use of resources by moving toward a circular economy.
Richard C. Thompson, Chapter, Part of the series The Handbook of Environmental Chemistry pp 1-13, Date: 06 October 2016