Assessment of microplastics in freshwater systems : a review

Li, Chaoran, Busquets, Rosa and Campos, Luiza C. (2020) Assessment of microplastics in freshwater systems : a review. Science of the Total Environment, 707, p. 135578. ISSN (print) 0048-9697


The reliance on plastic for a vast number of consumer products, many of them single-use, results in their continuous entry into aquatic environments. Plastic waste can fragment into smaller debris, some with diameter <5 mm (microplastics). Microplastics have been of growing concern especially since 2014, however to date research on microplastic pollution has mainly focused on marine environments, partly because it has been mistakenly thought that sewage treatment plants could remove all plastic debris. To understand the impact of microplastic pollution in freshwater environments, an assessment of research on the sources, distribution and effects of microplastics, and trends in their analysis and policy has been carried out. The main sources of microplastic found in freshwater environments include synthetic textiles, personal care products, industrial raw materials and the improper disposal of plastic waste. Microplastic pollution is a global issue that presents with a broad range of concentration: for example, 3.5 x 10^3 microplastic units·L-1 were reported in sediment of Lake Huron, the US and as low as 1.2×10-4 units·L-1 in countries with sparse population such as Mongolia. The main polymer constituents of microplastics found in freshwaters have been identified as polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS), and polyethylene terephthalate (PET), accounting for 70% of the total, each with a very similar frequency of occurrence. Despite microplastics being relatively inert, they are found to cause some effects in aquatic organisms. Future work should focus on monitoring microplastic pollution in regions from where there is currently scarce published data (e.g. South America, Africa and North Asia) and the study of their sources, stability, transport and effects to freshwater ecosystems. The establishment of standardized monitoring methods will allow for the comparison of data from different geographic areas. This information will inform measures to reduce the release and occurrence of microplastics in aquatic environments.

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