Pollution from microplastics and anthropogenic fibres threatens lakes, but we know little about what factors predict its accumulation. Lakes may be especially contaminated because of long water retention times and proximity to pollution sources. Here, we surveyed anthropogenic microparticles, i.e., microplastics and anthropogenic fibres, in surface waters of 67 European lakes spanning 30° of latitude and large environmental gradients. By collating data from >2,100 published net tows, we found that microparticle concentrations in our field survey were higher than previously reported in lakes and comparable to rivers and oceans. We then related microparticle concentrations in our field survey to surrounding land use, water chemistry, and plastic emissions to sites estimated from local hydrology, population density, and waste production. Microparticle concentrations in European lakes quadrupled as both estimated mismanaged waste inputs and wastewater treatment loads increased in catchments. Concentrations decreased by 2 and 5 times over the range of surrounding forest cover and potential in-lake biodegradation, respectively. As anthropogenic debris continues to pollute the environment, our data will help contextualise future work, and our models can inform control and remediation efforts.