We studied the fragmentation of conventional thermoplastic and compostable plastic items in a laboratory seawater microcosm. In the microcosm, polyurethane foams, cellulose acetate cigarette filters, and compostable polyester and polylactic acid items readily sank, whereas polyethylene air pouches, latex balloons, polystyrene foams and polypropylene cups remained afloat. Microbial biofilms dominated by Cyanobacteria, Proteobacteria, Planctomycetes and Bacteriodetes grew on the plastics, and caused some of the polyethylene items to sink to the bottom. Electrical resistances (ER) of plastic items decreased as function of time, an indication that seawater had penetrated into microscopic crevices in the plastic that had developed over time. Rate constants for ER decrease in polyethylene items in the microcosm were similar to tensile elongation decrease of polyethylene sheets floating in sea, measured previously by others. Weight loss of plastic items was ≤ 1% per year for polyethylene, polystyrene and polypropylene, 3–5% for latex, polyethylene terephthalate and polyurethane, 15% for cellulose acetate, and 7–27% for polyester and polylactic acid compostable bags. The formation of microplastics observed in the microcosm was responsible for at least part of the weight loss. This study emphasizes the need to obtain experimental data on plastic litter degradation under conditions that are realistic for marine environments.