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Plastic production is increasing every year in response to our daily requirements. It was estimated for 2010 that an average of 4-10 million MT of plastic products enter the world’s ocean each year, a number that is projected in increase by an order of magnitude by this year in the absence of any change in waste management protocols. When plastics are improperly disposed of and enter the ocean, they become degraded through photochemical and mechanical processes, and become what are known as microplastics (MPs)- currently defined as particulate plastics between 1 μm and 5 mm, and nanoplastics (NPs), particles between 1 and 1000 nm. In addition, MPs have been added to a variety of pharmaceuticals in the form of microbeads used in cosmetics and toothpaste, although a ban on this practice has been introduced. Other forms of MPs come from synthetic fibers from clothing and a variety of industrial abrasives.

Microplastics have been reported in the environment worldwide, from surface waters to deep-sea sediments, even in areas far from human activities such as in polar waters. All environmental matrices appear contaminated: surface waters, the water column, sediments and marine organisms from microplankton such as ciliates to mesoplankton such as copepods and larval fish. Microplastics are now found in all five of the world’s subtropical gyres and remote areas including the Marianas Trench, Arctic and Antarctic sea ice, and pristine tropical islands.

The fate of microplastics is only starting to be revealed, but understanding this is fundamentally an oceanographic problem since their distribution is a function of both large and small scale mixing (ref), microbial colonization and degradation (ref), ingestion by a variety of suspension feeders both in the water column (ref) and in the benthos (ref), and nucleation of marine snow particulates (Mincer et al., 2016), which may accelerate export of MPs and carbon to the deep sea.

Although the “field” of microplastics is relatively young, historical laboratory experiments have been conducted largely in the absence of environmental relevance by using off-the-shelf manufactured plastics beads in feeding experiments and at greatly elevated concentrations than typically found in the ocean. This has lead a number of scientists to question the validity of such experiments and challenge their results.

The lack of environmentally relevant experimental work, standardized materials and methods, and the analytical tools for comparing results across laboratories inhibits participation of the oceanographic community in an area of research that could and should be an important part of our knowledge base for the ocean. The “field” of marine plastics is at a crossroads, and is in danger of taking the path towards mediocrity. As an appeal to the scientific community, we seek to outline a decadal plan for MP research, highlighting the major issues that we believe are critical to address if we are to make significant advances in understanding the impact of MPs in the ocean.

Plastic production is increasing every year in response to our daily requirements. It was estimated for 2010 that an average of 4-10 million MT of plastic products enter the world’s ocean each year, a number that is projected in increase by an order of magnitude by this year in the absence of any change in waste management protocols. When plastics are improperly disposed of and enter the ocean, they become degraded through photochemical and mechanical processes, and become what are known as microplastics (MPs)- currently defined as particulate plastics between 1 μm and 5 mm, and nanoplastics (NPs), particles between 1 and 1000 nm. In addition, MPs have been added to a variety of pharmaceuticals in the form of microbeads used in cosmetics and toothpaste, although a ban on this practice has been introduced. Other forms of MPs come from synthetic fibers from clothing and a variety of industrial abrasives.

Microplastics have been reported in the environment worldwide, from surface waters to deep-sea sediments, even in areas far from human activities such as in polar waters. All environmental matrices appear contaminated: surface waters, the water column, sediments and marine organisms from microplankton such as ciliates to mesoplankton such as copepods and larval fish. Microplastics are now found in all five of the world’s subtropical gyres and remote areas including the Marianas Trench, Arctic and Antarctic sea ice, and pristine tropical islands.

The fate of microplastics is only starting to be revealed, but understanding this is fundamentally an oceanographic problem since their distribution is a function of both large and small scale mixing (ref), microbial colonization and degradation (ref), ingestion by a variety of suspension feeders both in the water column (ref) and in the benthos (ref), and nucleation of marine snow particulates (Mincer et al., 2016), which may accelerate export of MPs and carbon to the deep sea.

Although the “field” of microplastics is relatively young, historical laboratory experiments have been conducted largely in the absence of environmental relevance by using off-the-shelf manufactured plastics beads in feeding experiments and at greatly elevated concentrations than typically found in the ocean. This has lead a number of scientists to question the validity of such experiments and challenge their results.

The lack of environmentally relevant experimental work, standardized materials and methods, and the analytical tools for comparing results across laboratories inhibits participation of the oceanographic community in an area of research that could and should be an important part of our knowledge base for the ocean. The “field” of marine plastics is at a crossroads, and is in danger of taking the path towards mediocrity. As an appeal to the scientific community, we seek to outline a decadal plan for MP research, highlighting the major issues that we believe are critical to address if we are to make significant advances in understanding the impact of MPs in the ocean.