The Plastic Age: River Pollution in China from Crop Production and Urbanization

YA Li*, Q Zhang, J Baartman, J van Wijnen, N Beriot, C Kroeze, MR Wang, W Xu*, L Ma, K Wang, FS Zhang, M Strokal*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Many rivers are polluted with macro (>5 mm)- and microplastics (<5 mm). We assess plastic pollution in rivers from crop production and urbanization in 395 Chinese sub-basins. We develop and evaluate an integrated model (MARINA-Plastics model, China-1.0) that considers plastics in crop production (plastic films from mulching and greenhouses, diffuse sources), sewage systems (point sources), and mismanaged solid waste (diffuse source). Model results indicated that 716 kton of plastics entered Chinese rivers in 2015. Macroplastics in rivers account for 85% of the total amount of plastics (in mass). Around 71% of this total plastic is from about one-fifth of the basin area. These sub-basins are located in central and eastern China, and they are densely populated with intensive agricultural activities. Agricultural plastic films contribute 20% to plastics in Chinese rivers. Moreover, 65% of plastics are from mismanaged waste in urban and rural areas. Sewage is responsible for the majority of microplastics in rivers. Our study could support the design of plastic pollution control policies and thus contribute to green development in China and elsewhere.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)12019-12032
Number of pages14
JournalEnvironmental Science & Technology
Issue number32
Publication statusPublished - 15 Aug 2023


  • 0)
  • Agricultural plastic films
  • MARINA-Plastics (China-1
  • Macro- and microplastics
  • Mismanagedsolid waste
  • Sewage


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