Systematic analysis of the relative abundance of polymers occurring as microplastics in freshwaters and estuaries

John Iwan Jones*, Alena Vdovchenko, Dave Cooling, John F. Murphy, Amanda Arnold, James Lawrence Pretty, Kate L. Spencer, Adriaan Albert Markus, A. Dick Vethaak, Marina Resmini

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Despite growing interest in the environmental impact of microplastics, a standardized characterization method is not available. We carried out a systematic analysis of reliable global data detailing the relative abundance of polymers in freshwaters and estuaries. The polymers were identified according to seven main categories: polyethylene terephthalate, polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyurethane and a final category of miscellaneous plastic. The results show that microplastics comprised of polyvinyl chloride and polyurethane are significantly less abundant than would be expected based on global production, possibly due to their use. This has implications for models of microplastic release into the environment based on production and fate. When analysed by matrix (water, sediment or biota) distinct profiles were obtained for each category. Polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene were more abundant in sediment than in biota, while miscellaneous plastics was more frequent in biota. The data suggest that environmental sorting of microplastic particles, influenced by physical, chemical and biological processes, may play a key role in environmental impact, although partitioning among matrices based on density was not realized. The distinct profile of microplastics in biota raises an important question regarding potential selectivity in uptake by organisms, highlighting the priority for more and better-informed laboratory exposure studies.

Original languageEnglish
Article number9304
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalInternational Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health
Issue number24
Publication statusPublished - 12 Dec 2020


  • Environmental impact
  • Microplastic
  • Plastic polymers
  • Relative abundance


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