Plastic pollution represents one of the most salient indicators of society’s impact on the environment. The microplastic component of this is ubiquitous, however, microplastic studies are seldom representative of the locations they sample. Over 12 months we explored spatiotemporal variation in microplastic prevalence across a freshwater system and in atmospheric deposition within its catchment, in one of the most temporally comprehensive studies of microplastic pollution. Microplastics were quantified in low concentrations (max 0.4 particles L-1) at all freshwater sites, including upstream of urban areas, and on rivers that do not receive wastewater treatment plant effluent. Extrapolated microplastic abundances at each site varied by up to 8 orders of magnitude over the course of the sampling campaign, suggesting that microplastic surveys that do not account for temporal variability misrepresent microplastic prevalence. Whilst we do not wish to underplay the potential impacts of microplastic particles in the environment, we argue that microplastic pollution needs to be placed in a more critical context, including assessment of temporal variability, to appropriately inform legislators and consumers.