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Evaluation of vertical distribution characteristics of microplastics under 20 μm in lake and river waters in South Korea


Following the alarming reports of microplastic pollution in the marine environment, increased attention has been given to microplastics in other environmental media. Despite the attention, there is limited research available on the depth-distribution of microplastics in freshwater. Specifically, in the case of water sources used for drinking or tap, the height of intake facilities varies, and it is highly likely that there is a correlation between the vertical distribution of microplastics and these water intake structures. Further, because the size of microplastics varies widely in the environment, the commonly used sampling devices are not suitable for selectively extracting microplastics without causing cross-contamination. Thus, we developed a suitable device for microplastics of size 5–20 µm and studied microplastic distribution in freshwater at various depths by considering various types of microplastics and aqueous systems. Lake and river, two major water sources, were selected for the study of microplastics distribution in water system. The microplastic distribution characteristics in both water systems showed that polypropylene and polyethylene were the most abundant across all depths because of their production volume. Plastic types with higher density were found only at the lower layers, and polystyrene was found in the upper layers because of the environmental effects on its buoyancy caused pore diameter and surface area. The lake and river had higher microplastic distribution in the lower layer and upper layer, respectively. This was because the flow rate in river was higher than that of lake. The higher flow rate reduced the settling velocity in river. Thus, hydrodynamic stability influences the vertical distribution and concentrations of microplastics in the water systems. These results are expected to be used for understanding the behavioral characteristics of microplastics in water systems and to manage water sources.

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The data generated and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


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The authors thank the Korea Testing & Research Institute (KTR) for providing synthesized polymers and the Ministry of Environment (MOE) of Republic of Korea for providing temperature, suspended solid concentration, flow rate, and precipitation of the sampling site.


This research was supported by Korea Environment Industry and Technology Institute (KEITI) through Measurement and Risk assessment Program for Management of Microplastics Project, funded by Korea Ministry of Environment (MOE) (Grant numbers 2020003110005) and National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF) grant funded by the Korea government (MSIT) (No. 2020R1A2C2101347).

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All authors contributed to the study conception and design. Material preparation and data collection were performed by Junho Lee, Seonghyun Ju, Chaehwi Lim, Homin Kye, Jiyoon Kim, and Jihoon Lee. Analysis was performed by Kyung Tae Kim, Hye-Won Yu, Ingyu Lee, Hyunook Kim, and Yeojoon Yoon. The first draft of the manuscript was written by Junho Lee, and all authors commented on previous versions of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Yeojoon Yoon.

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Lee, J., Ju, S., Lim, C. et al. Evaluation of vertical distribution characteristics of microplastics under 20 μm in lake and river waters in South Korea. Environ Sci Pollut Res 30, 99875–99884 (2023).

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