The concept of maximum reservoir capacity (MRC), the ratio of the capacities of the surface soil and of the atmospheric mixed layer (AML) to hold chemical under equilibrium conditions, is applied to selected persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in the surface ‘skin’ (1 mm) of soils. MRC is calculated as a function of soil organic matter (SOM) content and temperature-dependent KOA and mapped globally for selected PCB congeners (PCB-28; -153; -180) and HCB, to identify regions with a higher tendency to retain POPs. It is shown to vary over many orders of magnitude, between compounds, locations and time (seasonally/diurnally). The MRC approach emphasises the very large capacity of soils as a storage compartment for POPs. The theoretical MRC concept is compared to reality and its implications for the global cycling of POPs are discussed. Sharp gradients in soil MRC can exist in mountainous areas and between the land and ocean. Exchanges between oceans and land masses via the atmosphere is likely to be an important driver to the global cycling of these compounds, and net ocean–land transfers could occur in some areas. Major global terrestrial sinks/stores for POPs are identified and the significance of gradients between them discussed.