Microplastics as an emerging threat to terrestrial ecosystems

Glob Chang Biol. 2018 Apr;24(4):1405-1416. doi: 10.1111/gcb.14020. Epub 2018 Jan 31.


Microplastics (plastics <5 mm, including nanoplastics which are <0.1 μm) originate from the fragmentation of large plastic litter or from direct environmental emission. Their potential impacts in terrestrial ecosystems remain largely unexplored despite numerous reported effects on marine organisms. Most plastics arriving in the oceans were produced, used, and often disposed on land. Hence, it is within terrestrial systems that microplastics might first interact with biota eliciting ecologically relevant impacts. This article introduces the pervasive microplastic contamination as a potential agent of global change in terrestrial systems, highlights the physical and chemical nature of the respective observed effects, and discusses the broad toxicity of nanoplastics derived from plastic breakdown. Making relevant links to the fate of microplastics in aquatic continental systems, we here present new insights into the mechanisms of impacts on terrestrial geochemistry, the biophysical environment, and ecotoxicology. Broad changes in continental environments are possible even in particle-rich habitats such as soils. Furthermore, there is a growing body of evidence indicating that microplastics interact with terrestrial organisms that mediate essential ecosystem services and functions, such as soil dwelling invertebrates, terrestrial fungi, and plant-pollinators. Therefore, research is needed to clarify the terrestrial fate and effects of microplastics. We suggest that due to the widespread presence, environmental persistence, and various interactions with continental biota, microplastic pollution might represent an emerging global change threat to terrestrial ecosystems.

Keywords: environmental health; global change; microplastics; nanoplastics; pollution; soil geochemistry.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Ecosystem
  • Environmental Monitoring*
  • Environmental Pollution*
  • Fungi
  • Invertebrates
  • Plastics*


  • Plastics