Topical review
February 2020, Environmental Research Letters

Erik van Sebille, Stefano Aliani, Kara Lavender Law, Nikolai Maximenko, José M Alsina, Andrei Bagaev, Melanie Bergmann, Bertrand Chapron, Irina Chubarenko, Andrés Cózar, Philippe Delandmeter, Matthias Egger, Baylor Fox-Kemper, Shungudzemwoyo P Garaba, Lonneke Goddijn-Murphy, Britta Denise Hardesty, Matthew J Hoffman, Atsuhiko Isobe, Cleo E Jongedijk, Mikael L A Kaandorp, Liliya Khatmullina, Albert A Koelmans, Tobias Kukulka, Charlotte Laufkötter, Laurent Lebreton, Delphine Lobelle, Christophe Maes, Victor Martinez-Vicente, Miguel Angel Morales Maqueda, Marie Poulain-Zarcos, Ernesto Rodríguez, Peter G Ryan, Alan L Shanks, Won Joon Shim, Giuseppe Suaria, Martin Thiel, Ton S van den Bremer and David Wichmann

  • Publication type: Topical review
  • Publication journal: Environmental Research Letters
  • Collaborators: Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, Utrecht University (NL), Institute of Marine Sciences—National Research Council (ISMAR-CNR) (IT), Sea Education Association (USA), International Pacific Research Center, School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, University of Hawaii at Manoa (USA), Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (ES), Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, Russian Academy of Sciences (RU), Marine Hydrophysical Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences (RU), Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (DE), Laboratoire d’Océanographie Physique et Spatiale (FR), o. de Biología, Facultad de Cc. del Mar y Ambientales, Universidad de Cádiz (ES), Stichting The Ocean Cleanup (NL), Dept. of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences, Brown University (USA), Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (USA), Marine Sensor Systems Group, Institute for Chemistry and Biology of the Marine Environment, Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg (DE), Environmental Research Institute, University of the Highlands and Islands (UK), Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Oceans and Atmosphere (AUS), School of Mathematical Sciences, Rochester Institute of Technology (USA), Research Institute for Applied Mechanics, Kyushu University (JP), Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Imperial College London (UK), Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Management Group, Wageningen University & Research (NL), School of Marine Science and Policy, University of Delaware (USA), Climate and Environmental Physics, University of Bern (CH), Ocean and Earth Sciences, University of Southampton (UK) National Physical Laboratory, Teddington (UK), University of Brest, Institut de Recherche pour le Developpement (FR), Remote Sensing Group, Plymouth Marine Laboratory (UK), School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, Newcastle University (UK), Institut de Mécanique des Fluides de Toulouse, University of Toulouse (FR), Laboratoire des Interactions Moléculaires et Réactivité Chimique et Photochimique, University of Toulouse (FR) Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology (USA), FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, University of Cape Town (ZA), Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, University of Oregon (USA), Oil and POPs Research Group, Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology (KR), Facultad Ciencias del Mar, Universidad Católica del Norte (CL), Millennium Nucleus Ecology and Sustainable Management of Oceanic Islands (CL), Centro de Estudios Avanzados en Zonas Áridas (CL), Department of Engineering Science, University of Oxford (UK)
  • Published: 17.02.2020
  • DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/ab6d7d


Marine plastic debris floating on the ocean surface is a major environmental problem. However, its distribution in the ocean is poorly mapped, and most of the plastic waste estimated to have entered the ocean from land is unaccounted for. Better understanding of how plastic debris is transported from coastal and marine sources is crucial to quantify and close the global inventory of marine plastics, which in turn represents critical information for mitigation or policy strategies. At the same time, plastic is a unique tracer that provides an opportunity to learn more about the physics and dynamics of our ocean across multiple scales, from the Ekman convergence in basin-scale gyres to individual waves in the surfzone. In this review, we comprehensively discuss what is known about the different processes that govern the transport of floating marine plastic debris in both the open ocean and the coastal zones, based on the published literature and referring to insights from neighbouring fields such as oil spill dispersion, marine safety recovery, plankton connectivity, and others. We discuss how measurements of marine plastics (both in situ and in the laboratory), remote sensing, and numerical simulations can elucidate these processes and their interactions across spatio-temporal scales.

  • fluid dynamics, Marine debris, ocean circulation, Physical oceanography, Remote sensing