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Published online November 15, 2023

Copyright © International Union of Geological Sciences.

Microplastics in soil and groundwater of Korea: Occurrence, characteristics and risk assessment

Jin-Yong Lee1,2*, Jihye Cha1,2, Eunju Jeong1,2, Rogers Wainkwa Chia1,3

1 Department of Geology, Kangwon National University, Chuncheon 24341, Republic of Korea
2 Research on Microplastics in Groundwater (RMPG) Team, Kangwon National University, Chuncheon 24341, Republic of Korea
3 Research Institute for Earth Resources, Kangwon National University, Chuncheon 24341, Republic of Korea

Correspondence to:*E-mail: hydrolee@kangwon.ac.kr

Received: July 23, 2023; Revised: August 24, 2023; Accepted: August 24, 2023

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0) which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Abstract

Microplastics (MPs) pollution in soil and groundwater is receiving increased attention, and relevant concerns are growing in Korea. This review explores recent studies conducted in Korea on MPs pollution in both the soil and groundwater. MPs are ubiquitously distributed in Korean soil and groundwater, and their concentrations cannot be disregarded. The most prevalent polymer types are polypropylene (PP), polyethylene (PE), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which may exhibit some variations depending on the location. The levels of MPs in the groundwater exhibit seasonal variation influenced by monsoonal rainfall, whereas the levels of MPs in the soil show minimal seasonal fluctuations. The most frequently detected size range of MPs is 20 to 100 μm, accounting for approximately 80–90% of the total. The predominant shape observed is fragments, suggesting that the MPs present in soil and groundwater originate from secondary sources, such as the weathering and mechanical abrasion of different plastic products. The identified MP sources encompass various aspects of agricultural practices. These sources include plastics used in greenhouses, plastic mulching films employed for vegetable cultivation, plastic containers for agricultural fertilizers, and plastic components of agricultural machinery. Additionally, unmanaged groundwater wells, which use numerous plastic hoses and connecting pipes for production, are noteworthy potential sources of MPs in this particular country. The risk assessment conducted for the three studied areas, that is, heavy agriculture, permeable basaltic surfaces, and karst aquifers, revealed low to moderate hazard levels and ecological risks associated with soil and groundwater MP pollution. Based on the study findings, a comprehensive nationwide investigation should be conducted focusing on MPs in soil and groundwater. Additionally, immediate legislative measures are needed to regulate the use of plastic products, particularly in agricultural practices.