Particle balance and return loops for microplastics in a tertiary-level wastewater treatment plant

Pauliina Salmi*, Kalle Ryymin, Anna K. Karjalainen, Anna Mikola, Emilia Uurasjarvi, Julia Talvitie

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

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Microplastics (MPs) from households, stormwater, and various industries are transported to wastewater treatment plants (WVVTPs), where a high proportion of them are captured before discharging their residuals to watersheds. Although recent studies have indicated that the removed MPs are mainly retained in wastewater sludge, sludge treatment processes have gained less attention in MP research than water streams at primary, secondary, and tertiary treatments. In this study, we sampled twelve different process steps in a tertiary-level municipal WWTP in central Finland. Our results showed that, compared to the plant influent load, three times more MPs circulated via reject water from the sludge centrifugation back to the beginning of the treatment process. Especially fibrous MPs were abundant in the dewatered sludge, whereas fragment-like MPs were observed in an aqueous stream. We concluded that, compared to the tertiary effluent, sludge treatment is the major exit route for MPs into the environment, but sludge treatment is also a return loop to the beginning of the process. Our sampling campaign also demonstrated that WWTPs with varying hydraulic conditions (such as the one studied here) benefit from disc filter-based tertiary treatments in MP removal.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages12
JournalWater Science and Technology
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 31 May 2021
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • enzymatic purification
  • microplastics
  • reject water
  • return loop
  • wastewater sludge
  • FATE

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