Current plastic pollution Since the advent of the widespread commercial production and use of plastics (see Glossary) after the Second World War, the rate of production and the associated emission of plastic waste into the world’s oceans has grown significantly. In recent decades, much of the plastic pollution came from single-use items.
Annual emissions into the oceans were estimated at 19–23 MMT (see “Metric ton” in the Glossary) in 2016. Another important feature of plastic pollution is that, once in the environment, the larger macroplastic items break down into ever smaller fragments, becoming microplastics, which become nanoplastics. Because of this fragmentation process, concentrations of microplastics and nano – plastics will continue to rise for decades even if all plastic emissions cease now.
Increasing scientific and public interest The last decade has seen an unprecedented increase in research findings coupled with a growing interest in the media and rising concern in the public sphere. Pictures of beautiful tropical beaches and coral reefs choked by plastic waste, of dying animals caught up in abandoned fishing nets and throwaway plastic items, and of birds with stomachs full of plastic waste have played a prominent role in raising awareness of this issue to gain public attention globally.
Meanwhile, scientists have worked on more and more questions related to plastic pollution, with thousands of studies now covering many different aspects of this pervasive environmental problem. In this report, we review the scientific literature to summarise and evaluate the current state of knowledge on the effects of plastic pollution on marine populations, species and ecosystems.