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Environ Sci Technol. 2019 Feb 5;53(3):1039-1047. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.8b05297. Epub 2019 Jan 17.

Are We Speaking the Same Language? Recommendations for a Definition and Categorization Framework for Plastic Debris.

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Department of Environmental Engineering , Technical University of Denmark , Bygningstorvet B115 , Kgs. Lyngby 2800 , Denmark.
Department of Environmental Geosciences, Environmental Science Research Network, and Research Platform Plastics in the Environment and Society (PLENTY) , University of Vienna , Althanstrasse 14 , Vienna 1090 , Austria.
School of Biological and Marine Sciences , University of Plymouth , Plymouth PL4 8AA , United Kingdom.
Department of Marine Sciences , University of Gothenburg , Kristineberg 566 , Fiskebäckskil 45178 , Sweden.
National Institute for Public Health and the Environment , Antonie van Leeuwenhoeklaan 9 , Bilthoven 3721 MA , The Netherlands.
Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering, Danish Polymer Centre , Technical University of Denmark , Søltofts Plads B227 , Kgs. Lyngby 2800 , Denmark.
Department Biochemistry and Ecotoxicology , Federal Institute of Hydrology , Am Mainzer Tor 1 , Koblenz 56068 , Germany.
Marine Ecology & Biodiversity , Plymouth Marine Laboratory , Prospect Place, The Hoe, Plymouth PL1 3DH , United Kingdom.
Ovivo Switzerland AG , Hauptstrasse 192 , Aesch 4147 , Switzerland.
Department of Water Management and Water Protection , North Rhine Westphalia State Agency for Nature, Environment and Consumer Protection , Postfach 101052 , Recklinghausen 45610 , Germany.
Institute of Hydrochemistry, Chair of Analytical Chemistry and Water Chemistry , Technical University of Munich , Marchioninistr. 17 , Munich 81377 , Germany.
Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA) , Oslo 0349 , Norway.
Department of Biology , Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) , Trondheim 7491 , Norway.


The accumulation of plastic litter in natural environments is a global issue. Concerns over potential negative impacts on the economy, wildlife, and human health provide strong incentives for improving the sustainable use of plastics. Despite the many voices raised on the issue, we lack a consensus on how to define and categorize plastic debris. This is evident for microplastics, where inconsistent size classes are used and where the materials to be included are under debate. While this is inherent in an emerging research field, an ambiguous terminology results in confusion and miscommunication that may compromise progress in research and mitigation measures. Therefore, we need to be explicit on what exactly we consider plastic debris. Thus, we critically discuss the advantages and disadvantages of a unified terminology, propose a definition and categorization framework, and highlight areas of uncertainty. Going beyond size classes, our framework includes physicochemical properties (polymer composition, solid state, solubility) as defining criteria and size, shape, color, and origin as classifiers for categorization. Acknowledging the rapid evolution of our knowledge on plastic pollution, our framework will promote consensus building within the scientific and regulatory community based on a solid scientific foundation.

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