Microplastic ingestion has been documented for a range of marine vertebrates and invertebrates (Fig. 10.1). Interactions were recorded primarily during controlled laboratory studies, but results from fi sampling of wild populations also indicate microplastic ingestion. In the case of some invertebrates, adverse physiological and biological effects were reported. The biological repercussions depend on to the size of microplastics with smaller sizes having greater effects on organisms at the cellular level. In the micrometre range, plastics are readily ingested and egested whereas

Fig. 10.1 Microplastic interactions in the marine environment including environmental links (solid arrows) and biological links (broken arrows), which highlights potential trophic transfer (Photos of microplastics: A. Lusher)

nanometre-sized plastics can pass through cell membranes. Acute exposure experiments demonstrated signifi biological effects including weight loss, reduced feeding activity, increased phagocytic activity and transference to the lysosomal (storage) system. Larger microplastics (2–5 mm) may take longer to pass from the stomachs of organisms and could be retained in the digestive system, potentially increasing the exposure time to adsorbed toxins (see Rochman 2015).

It is important to determine the ecological effects of microplastic ingestion. Studies are required to assess the contamination of more species of fish, marine mammals and sea turtles, as well as consequences of microplastic uptake and retention. Further research is necessary to determine the limits of microplastic translocation between tissues, and assess the differences between multiple polymer types and shapes. It is likely that additional species of invertebrate ingest microplastics in wild populations, as fibres and fragments found in the field are actively selected in experiments. Although some organisms appear to be able to differentiate between microplastics and prey, and microplastic excretion has been recorded. Without knowledge of retention and egestion rates of field populations, it is difficult to deduce ecological consequences. There is some evidence to suggest that microplastics enter the food chain and transfer of microplastics between trophic levels implies bioaccumulation and biomagnification. Despite concerns raised by ingestion in the marine environment, the effects of microplastic ingestion in natural populations and the implications for food webs are not understood. Such knowledge is crucial in order to be able to develop and implement effective management strategies (Thompson et al. 2009). Additional studies are required to understand the flux of microplastic from benthic sediments to the infauna. Lastly, microplastics provide open ocean habitats for colonisation by invertebrates, bacteria and viruses. As a result, these organisms can be transported over large distances by ocean currents and/or through the water column (Kiessling et al. 2015).


Microplastics have been found in almost every marine habitat around the world, and plastic density along with ocean currents appears to have a significant effect on their distribution. Modelling studies suggest that floating debris accumulates in ocean gyres but this is dependent on the composition and shape of individual polymers. The widespread distribution and accumulation of microplastics raises concerns regarding the interaction and potential effects of microplastics on marine organisms. As microplastics interact with plankton and sediments, both suspension and deposit feeders may accidentally or selectively ingest microplastics. Despite concerns regarding ingestion, only a limited number of studies examined microplastic ingestion in the field. Knowledge of the retention rates of microplastics would enable estimations of the impacts of microplastic uptake. If rejection occurs before digestion, microplastics might pose less of a threat to organisms than initially assumed. However, there could be energetic costs associated with the production of pseudofaeces. Laboratory studies can be used to determine the end point of microplastic ingestion, and would benefit from using multiple types of microplastics to simulate field conditions. Unfortunately, it is difficult to establish a direct link between microplastics and adverse effects on marine biota experimentally. Furthermore, due to the difficult nature of field studies, it will be harder to understand effects on natural populations.

As microplastic research is still in its infancy, there are many more unanswered questions, the answers to which are required to build on current knowledge to develop a clearer picture of the impact of microplastics in the sea.

Acknowledgments The author would like to thank Emily Lorch, Julia Hemprich, Chelsea Rochman, Rick Officer and Ian O'Connor for their useful comments on an earlier draft. Bart Koelmans and an anonymous reviewer improved an earlier version of the manuscript. Marta Bolgan for the illustrations in Fig. 10.1. The author was awarded an Irish Research Council postgraduate scholarship [Project ID: GOIPG/2013/284] and a Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology 40th Anniversary studentship to conduct her Ph.D. research.

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