Microplastics in freshwater and terrestrial environments: Evaluating the current understanding to identify the knowledge gaps and future research priorities

Plastic debris is an environmentally persistent and complex contaminant of increasing concern. Understanding the sources, abundance and composition of microplastics present in the environment is a huge challenge due to the fact that hundreds of millions of tonnes of plastic material is manufactured for societal use annually, some of which is released to the environment. The majority of microplastics research to date has focussed on the marine environment. Although freshwater and terrestrial environments are recognised as origins and transport pathways of plastics to the oceans, there is still a comparative lack of knowledge about these environmental compartments. It is highly likely that microplastics will accumulate within continental environments, especially in areas of high anthropogenic influence such as agricultural or urban areas. This review critically evaluates the current literature on the presence, behaviour and fate of microplastics in freshwater and terrestrial environments and, where appropriate, also draws on relevant studies from other fields including nanotechnology, agriculture and waste management. Furthermore, we evaluate the relevant biological and chemical information from the substantial body of marine microplastic literature, determining the applicability and comparability of this data to freshwater and terrestrial systems. With the evidence presented, the authors have set out the current state of the knowledge, and identified the key gaps. These include the volume and composition of microplastics entering the environment, behaviour and fate of microplastics under a variety of environmental conditions and how characteristics of microplastics influence their toxicity. Given the technical challenges surrounding microplastics research, it is especially important that future studies develop standardised techniques to allow for comparability of data. The identification of these research needs will help inform the design of future studies, to determine both the extent and potential ecological impacts of microplastic pollution in freshwater and terrestrial environments.

Alice A. Horton, Alexander Walton, David J. Spurgeon, Elma Lahive, Claus Svendsen, Science of The Total Environment, Volume 586, 15 May 2017, Pages 127–141

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