Export of microplastics from land to sea: A modelling approach

M. Siegfried, Albert A. Koelmans, Ellen Besseling, C. Kroeze*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

216 Citations (Web of Science)


Quantifying the transport of plastic debris from river to sea is crucial for assessing the risks of plastic debris to human health and the environment. We present a global modelling approach to analyse the composition and quantity of point-source microplastic fluxes from European rivers to the sea. The model accounts for different types and sources of microplastics entering river systems via point sources. We combine information on these sources with information on sewage management and plastic retention during river transport for the largest European rivers. Sources of microplastics include personal care products, laundry, household dust and tyre and road wear particles (TRWP). Most of the modelled microplastics exported by rivers to seas are synthetic polymers from TRWP (42%) and plastic-based textiles abraded during laundry (29%). Smaller sources are synthetic polymers and plastic fibres in household dust (19%) and microbeads in personal care products (10%). Microplastic export differs largely among European rivers, as a result of differences in socio-economic development and technological status of sewage treatment facilities. About two-thirds of the microplastics modelled in this study flow into the Mediterranean and Black Sea. This can be explained by the relatively low microplastic removal efficiency of sewage treatment plants in the river basins draining into these two seas. Sewage treatment is generally more efficient in river basins draining into the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. We use our model to explore future trends up to the year 2050. Our scenarios indicate that in the future river export of microplastics may increase in some river basins, but decrease in others. Remarkably, for many basins we calculate a reduction in river export of microplastics from point-sources, mainly due to an anticipated improvement in sewage treatment.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)249-257
Number of pages9
JournalWater Research
Publication statusPublished - 15 Dec 2017


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