Accelerated contamination of habitats with debris has caused increased effort to determine ecological impacts. Strikingly, most work on organisms focuses on sublethal responses to plastic debris. This is controversial because (i) researchers have ignored medical insights about the mechanisms that link effects of debris across lower levels of biological organization to disease and mortality, and (ii) debris is considered non-hazardous by policy-makers, possibly because individuals can be injured or removed from populations and assemblages without ecological impacts. We reviewed the mechanisms that link effects of debris across lower levels of biological organization to assemblages and populations. Using plastic, we show microplastics reduce the ‘health’, feeding, growth and survival of ecosystem engineers. Larger debris alters assemblages because fishing-gear and tyres kill animals and damage habitat-forming plants, and because floating bottles facilitate recruitment and survival of novel taxa. Where ecological linkages are not known, we show how to establish hypothetical links by synthesizing studies to assess the likelihood of impacts. We also consider how population models examine ecological linkages and guide management of ecological impacts. We show that by focusing on linkages to ecological impacts rather than the presence of debris and its sublethal impacts, we could reduce threats posed by debris.