Enhanced settling of microplastics after biofilm development: A laboratory column study mimicking wastewater clarifiers

So Young Lee, Jiyul An, Jinwoo Kim, Jung Hwan Kwon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


The settling of microplastics (MPs) is crucial for their removal from municipal wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) and sedimentation in static waterbodies, where they can accumulate in bottom sediments. Biofilm formation on MPs enhances their aggregation with other particles, thereby changing their density and size and altering their settling rates. However, only a few studies have investigated the settling of MPs of different sizes and materials. Specifically, the settling of small-sized MPs (<150 μm) has been poorly documented. In this study, cylindrical and fragmented particles of four polymer types (high-density polyethylene (HDPE), polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS), and poly(ethylene terephthalate) (PET)) were used to investigate the settling or floating of reference MPs (20–130 μm) in a custom-made column that simulated a primary sedimentation tank in a typical WWTP before and after incubation in wastewater influent. The settling velocity of the reference MP particles was strongly influenced by the particle size and density. The settled fractions of all the cylindrical reference MPs increased significantly (up to 5 times) due to biofilm formation at overflow velocities of 0.15, 0.26, and 0.40 mm s−1. This was observed even for HDPE and PP (density <1 g cm−3) after biofilm formation. The fragmented reference MPs showed complex and rather unpredictable behavior, possibly due to their irregular shape. Generally, the settling of pristine PS and PET in the laboratory tests was consistent with the theoretical predictions obtained using Stokes’ law. The experimental findings of this study can be used to develop models that predict the removal efficiencies of MPs in WWTPs and to estimate the sinking of MPs to bottom sediments of static waterbodies.

Original languageEnglish
Article number119909
JournalEnvironmental Pollution
Publication statusPublished - 2022 Oct 15


  • Aggregation
  • Biofilm
  • Freshwater
  • Microplastics
  • Settling velocity
  • Wastewater treatment plants

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Toxicology
  • Pollution
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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