The fate of plastic litter within estuarine compartments: an overview of current knowledge for the transboundary issue to guide future assessments

Lara Pinheiro, Vanessa Agostini, Andre Lima, Raymond Ward, Grasiela Pinho

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Plastics can enter biogeochemical cycles and thus be found in most ecosystems. Most studies emphasize plastic pollution in oceanic ecosystems even though rivers and estuaries are acknowledged as the main sources of plastics to the oceans. This review detected few studies approaching the transboundary issue, as well as patterns of estuarine gradients in predicting plastic distribution and accumulation in water, sediments, and organisms. Quantities of plastics in estuaries reach up to 45,500 items m −3 in water, 567,000 items m −3 in sediment, and 131 items per individual in the biota. The role of rivers and estuaries in the transport of plastics to the ocean is far from fully understood due to small sample sizes, short-term approaches, sampling techniques that underestimate small plastics, and the use of site-specific sampling rather than covering environmental gradients. Microfibres are the most commonly found plastic type in all environmental matrices but efforts to re-calculate pathways using novel sampling techniques and estimates are incipient. Microplastic availability to estuarine organisms and rising/sinking is determined by polymer characteristics and spatio-temporal fluctuations in physicochemical, biological, and mineralogical factors. Key processes governing plastic contamination along estuarine trophic webs remain unclear, as most studies used “species” as an ecological unit rather than trophic/functional guilds and ontogenetic shifts in feeding behaviour to understand communities and intraspecific relationships, respectively. Efforts to understand contamination at the tissue level and the contribution of biofouling organisms as vectors of contaminants onto plastic surfaces are increasing. In conclusion, rivers and estuaries still require attention with regards to accurate sampling and conclusions. Multivariate analysis and robust models are necessary to predict the fate of micro- and macroplastics in estuarine environments; and the inclusion of the socio-economic aspects in modelling techniques seems to be relevant regarding management approaches. Main finding: Investigation of the river-estuary-ocean continuum and its specificities is crucial to fully elucidate plastic contamination in aquatic environments.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number116908
    JournalEnvironmental Pollution
    Publication statusPublished - 15 Mar 2021


    • Biofouling
    • Chemical compounds
    • Macroplastic
    • Microplastic
    • Toxicity
    • Transboundary


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