Connecting Waterpeople

You are here

Rivers contain hidden sinks and sources of microplastics

  • Rivers contain hidden sinks and sources of microplastics
  • Research along the Ganges River represents the first combined analysis of microplastics in water, sediment and air around a major river system.

About the entity

University of Plymouth
The University of Plymouth is a public university based predominantly in Plymouth, England.

Significant quantities of microplastic particles are being trapped in riverbed sediments or carried through the air along major river systems, a new study has shown.

The research, conducted along the length of the Ganges River in South Asia, found on average about 41 microplastic particles per square metre per day settled from the atmosphere.

In addition, analysis by scientists found 57 particles per kilogram on average in sediment from the riverbed as well as one particle in every 20 litres of water.

The research, published in Science of the Total Environment, represents the first combined analysis of microplastics in water, sediment and air around a major river system.

It was conducted using samples collected by an international team of scientists as part of the National Geographic Society's Sea to Source: Ganges expedition.

Imogen Napper, Research Fellow at the University of Plymouth and National Geographic Explorer, said: "We have known for some time that rivers are key pathways for the transfer of microplastics to marine environments. However, there has always been uncertainty about the sheer amounts being transported, and whether they represent long-term sinks. This study goes some way to unravelling that mystery, and revealing the true scale of microplastic contamination that our river systems can represent."

The research involved scientists from: the University of Plymouth (UK); the Wildlife Institute of India (India); the University of Dhaka, WildTeam, and Isabella Foundation (Bangladesh); National Geographic Society, University of Georgia (USA); ZSL (Zoological Society of London), University of Exeter (UK); and Nantes Université (France).

Many of the same scientists were involved in a previous study, published in January 2021, which suggested the Ganges River and its tributaries could be responsible for up to 3 billion microplastic particles entering the Bay of Bengal every day.

In addition to highlighting the overall abundance of particles, for the new study scientists found fibres to be the most common type, representing up to 99% of the microplastics discovered in some of the samples analysed.

Within this, rayon (synthetically altered cellulose) was the dominant polymer – representing up to 82% of the fibres found in some samples – ahead of acrylic and polyester, and blue was the most common colour.

The sediment samples often contained denser microplastic particles than those found in water and air, and higher population densities correlated with increased microplastic abundance for air and water samples.

Writing in the study, scientists say they believe clothing is likely to be the prominent source of microplastics to this particular river system, influenced by atmospheric deposition, wastewater, and direct inputs such as the handwashing of clothes in the Ganges.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Topics of interest

The data provided will be treated by iAgua Conocimiento, SL for the purpose of sending emails with updated information and occasionally on products and / or services of interest. For this we need you to check the following box to grant your consent. Remember that at any time you can exercise your rights of access, rectification and elimination of this data. You can consult all the additional and detailed information about Data Protection.