Integrated Science for the Study of Microplastics in the Environment—A Strategic Science Vision for the U.S. Geological Survey

Circular 1521
By: , and 


Executive Summary

Evidence of the widespread occurrence of microplastics throughout our environment and exposure to humans and other organisms over the past decade has led to questions about the possibility of health hazards and mitigation of exposures. This document discusses nanoplastics as well as microplastics (referred to solely as microplastics); the microplastics have a range from 1 micrometer to 5 millimeters (1 μm–5 mm) in length, whereas the nanoplastics are less than 1 μm in length (sidebar ES1).

A myriad of environmental exposure pathways with microplastics to humans and wildlife, including ingestion, inhalation, and bodily absorption, are likely to exist. A growing body of evidence has documented bioaccumulation of microplastics in tissues and organs of humans and wildlife, benthic community effects, and potential nutritional and reproductive effects in some wildlife species. Understanding if or when environmental exposures pose a health risk is complicated by the diversity of microplastic sizes, morphologies, polymer types, and chemicals added during manufacturing or sorbed from the environment; ongoing challenges in analytical methods used to detect, quantify, and characterize microplastics and associated chemicals in our ecosystems; and the fact that ecotoxicological studies regarding microplastics are still in their infancy. Therefore, the study of environmental exposures and potential related health hazards of microplastics to the public and wildlife is a One Health (sidebar ES2) research topic that necessitates integrated science approaches.

A better understanding of the sources, pathways, fate, and biological effects of microplastics has become a priority of the Federal Government, State governments, Tribes, stakeholders, and the public. Examples of Federal and State microplasticfocused legislation and programs to prioritize microplastic research and reduction include the Federal Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, California Senate Bills 1422 and 1263 (2018), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Trash Free Waters Program, the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Microplastic and Nanoplastic Metrology project, and Minnesota’s microplastic project. With its unique expertise and capabilities, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is well positioned to help fill some of the most important microplastic science gaps.

This strategic science vision document for microplastics identifies current (2023) microplastic science gaps and prioritizes research relevant to the mission, expertise, and capabilities of the USGS. It is intended for USGS scientists and stakeholders to use as a starting point for planning, prioritizing, and designing collaborative environmental microplastic science. Many of the microplastic science gaps and priorities are scalable, from local to national, and thus, can be made commensurate with available funding and evolving analytical and field tools, laboratory capacity, and stakeholder needs. Current (2023) or future research by academia and other Federal or State agencies, and Tribes may be aimed at some of the same microplastic science gaps identified in this document. Therefore, this document can be used as an information resource to maximize strengths and capabilities and minimize redundancy in communication and collaboration.

Suggested Citation

Iwanowicz, D.D., Baldwin, A.K., Barber, L.B., Blazer, V.S., Corsi, S.R., Duris, J.W., Fisher, S.C., Focazio, M., Janssen, S.E., Jasmann, J.R., Kolpin, D.W., Kraus, J.M., Lane, R.F., Lee, M.E., McSwain, K.B., Oden, T.D., Reilly, T.J., and Spanjer, A.R., 2024, Integrated science for the study of microplastics in the environment—A strategic science vision for the U.S. Geological Survey: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1521, 54 p.,

ISSN: 2330-5703 (online)

ISSN: 1067-084X (print)

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • 1.0. Introduction
  • 2.0. Science Needs, Data Gaps, and Opportunities for Microplastic Research
  • 3.0. Vision for Interdisciplinary Science
  • Acknowledgments
  • References Cited
  • Appendix 1. Comparison of Microplastic Analytical Methods
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Integrated science for the study of microplastics in the environment—A strategic science vision for the U.S. Geological Survey
Series title Circular
Series number 1521
ISBN 978-1-4113-4554-6
DOI 10.3133/cir1521
Year Published 2024
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Office of the AD Ecosystems
Description vi, 54 p.
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details