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Research article2021Peer reviewedOpen access

Microplastics in terrestrial ecosystems: Moving beyond the state of the art to minimize the risk of ecological surprise

Baho, Didier L.; Bundschuh, Mirco; Futter, Martyn N.


Microplastic (plastic particles measuring <5mm) pollution is ubiquitous. Unlike in other well-studied ecosystems, for example, marine and freshwater environments, microplastics in terrestrial systems are relatively understudied. Their potential impacts on terrestrial environments, in particular the risk of causing ecological surprise, must be better understood and quantified. Ecological surprise occurs when ecosystem behavior deviates radically from expectations and generally has negative consequences for ecosystem services. The properties and behavior of microplastics within terrestrial environments may increase their likelihood of causing ecological surprises as they (a) are highly persistent global pollutants that will last for centuries, (b) can interact with the abiotic environment in a complex manner, (c) can impact terrestrial organisms directly or indirectly and (d) interact with other contaminants and can facilitate their transport. Here, we compiled findings of previous research on microplastics in terrestrial environments. We systematically focused on studies addressing different facets of microplastics related to their distribution, dispersion, impact on soil characteristics and functions, levels of biological organization of tested terrestrial biota (single species vs. assemblages), scale of experimental study and corresponding ecotoxicological effects. Our systematic assessment of previous microplastic research revealed that most studies have been conducted on single species under laboratory conditions with short-term exposures; few studies were conducted under more realistic long-term field conditions and/or with multi-species assemblages. Studies targeting multi-species assemblages primarily considered soil bacterial communities and showed that microplastics can alter essential nutrient cycling functions. More ecologically meaningful studies of terrestrial microplastics encompassing multi-species assemblages, critical ecological processes (e.g., biogeochemical cycles and pollination) and interactions with other anthropogenic stressors must be conducted. Addressing these knowledge gaps will provide a better understanding of microplastics as emerging global stressors and should lower the risk of ecological surprise in terrestrial ecosystems.


ecological impacts; ecological surprise; ecosystem services; microplastics; soil; terrestrial ecosystems

Published in

Global Change Biology
2021, Volume: 27, number: 17, pages: 3969-3986
Publisher: WILEY