Issue 2, 2021

The fate of plastic in the ocean environment – a minireview


The presence of plastics in the marine environment poses a threat to ocean life and has received much scientific and public attention in recent years. Plastics were introduced to the market in the 1950s and since then, global production figures and ocean plastic littering have increased exponentially. Of the 359 million tonnes (Mt) produced in 2018, an estimated 14.5 Mt has entered the ocean. In particular smaller plastic particles can be ingested by marine biota causing hazardous effects. Plastic marine debris (PMD) is exposed to physical, chemical and biological stressors. These cause macro and microplastic to break down into smaller fragments, including sub micrometre sized nanoplastic particles, which may account for an important but so far unevaluated fraction of the ocean plastic budget. Physicochemical and biological deterioration of PMD also leads to the release of more volatile compounds and the terminal oxidation of PMD, which most likely accounts for an important but also unevaluated fraction in the ocean plastic budget. This minireview provides an overview on (1) the quantity of plastic production and waste, pathways for plastics to enter the marine realm, the inventory of PMD and the negative effects of PMD to ocean life. (2) We discuss plastic degradation mechanisms in the ocean, expanding on the processes of photodegradation and biodegradation. (3) This review also highlights the emerging topic of nanoplastics in the sea and provides an overview on their specific physical and chemical properties, potential harm to ocean life, and nanoplastic detection techniques.

Graphical abstract: The fate of plastic in the ocean environment – a minireview

Article information

Article type
Critical Review
22 Oct 2020
13 Jan 2021
First published
14 Jan 2021
This article is Open Access
Creative Commons BY license

Environ. Sci.: Processes Impacts, 2021,23, 198-212

The fate of plastic in the ocean environment – a minireview

C. Wayman and H. Niemann, Environ. Sci.: Processes Impacts, 2021, 23, 198 DOI: 10.1039/D0EM00446D

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