Plastic fantastic? The impact of microplastic on water quality and marine environments


In today’s world plastic is all around us and is used for various purposes. Nowadays, a life without plastic seems hard to imagine. An average person living in Western Europe or North America consumes 100 kilograms of plastic each year, mostly in the form of packaging (1). Despite all the advantages, benefits and convenience plastic brings to our life’s it also comes at a cost. At least 8 million tons of plastics leak into the ocean each year (2).

What is concerning is not only the plastic pollution we see at our seashores but also the tiny plastic particles that are barely visible to the naked eye. This form of plastic, which is defined to be smaller than 5 mm, is called microplastic. In the 1970s, microplastics were first seen as spherules in plankton tows along the coast of New England (3). Now, plastic debris is present in all marine environments, whether you are looking at coastlines or the open ocean, in deep-sea sediments or in Arctic sea ice (4–6).

In 2014, the World Economic Forum, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company formed a partnership to come up with a New Plastics Economy initiative to mitigate the impact of the large amount of plastic in the environment. In 2016, their findings were published which paved the way towards the just recently published 2017 report bringing the points into action (7,8).

The three key points are to:

  •    • Improve global recycling efforts to create an effective after-use plastics economy
  •    • Reduce the leakage of plastic waste into the environment
  •    • Decouple plastic from the fossil fuels used to create it

In the meantime, the water environment appears to be evolving, in the sense that fragmented microplastics are being colonized by marine microorganisms (9, 10). Recently researchers found a novel bacterium, Ideonella sakaiensis, that biodegrades Poly(ethylene terephthalate) and uses it as its major energy and carbon source (11).

To gain better insights into the composition of “epiplastic” communities in different aquatic environments, DNA extraction kits like the DNeasy Blood and Tissue Kit can be used to extract nucleic acids from plastic biofilms after mechanical disruption of cells, followed by metagenomic sequencing (12). Find out more about sample disruption methods on the blog post ”Considerations for choosing the right sample disruption method”.


  1. 1. Gourmelon, G. (2015) Global Plastic Production Rises, Recycling Lags. Worldwatch Institute. Link
  2. 2 .Jambeck, J.R. et al. (2015) Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science, 347, 768-771. Link
  3. 3. Carpenter, E.J. et al. (1972) Polystyrene spherules in coastal waters. Science 178, 749-750. Link
  4. 4. D.K. et al. (2009) Accumulation and fragmentation of plastic debris in global environments. Philos. Trans. R. Soc., B, Biol. Sci. 364, 1985–1998. Link
  5. 5. Woodall, L.C. et al. (2014) The deep sea is a major sink for microplastic debris. R. Soc. open sci. 1, doi: 1098/rsos.140317. Link
  6. 6. Obbard, R.W. et al. (2014) Global warming releases microplastic legacy frozen in Arctic Sea ice, Earth’s Future, 2, 315–320. Link
  7. 7. World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Co (2016) The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics. Link
  8. 8. World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017), The New Plastics Economy: Catalysing action. Link
  9. 9. Harrison, J.P. et al. (2011) Interactions Between Microorganisms and Marine Microplastics: A Call for Research. BMC Microbiol., 14, 1–15. Link
  10. 10. Reisser, J. et al. (2014) Millimeter-Sized Marine Plastics: A New Pelagic Habitat for Microorganisms and Invertebrates. PLoS ONE 9, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0100289. Link
  11. 11. Yoshida, S. et al. (2016) A bacterium that degrades and assimilates poly(ethylene terephthalate). Science, 351, 1196-1199. Link
  12. 12. Bryant, J.A. et al. (2016). Diversity and activity of communities inhabiting plastic debris in the North Pacific Gyre. mSystems 1, doi: 10.1128/mSystems.00024-16. Link
Kjell Kirschbaum

Kjell Kirschbaum, M.Sc., is a Global Market Manager based in QIAGEN’s Venlo office, the Netherlands. He trained as a bioveterinary scientist at the University of Utrecht and has hands-on experience in nucleic acid and protein purification, cell culture, PCR and qPCR technology. Kjell joined QIAGEN in 2011 as a CRM specialist, regularly interacting with customers about their day-to-day experimental needs and offering relevant solutions. Currently, he is involved in managing global projects for sample preparation and automation technologies.

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