Polyethylene microplastic can adsorb phosphate but is unlikely to limit its availability in soil

Tazeen Khan, Mark Edward Hodson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In plant growth experiments, the presence of microplastics (MPs) often reduces plant growth. We conducted laboratory experiments to investigate the potential of microplastics to adsorb the major soil nutrient phosphate; adsorption to MPs was then compared to adsorption to soil. Adsorption experiments used two contrasting soils, pristine high density polyethylene and artificially weathered material (the same material but exposed to 185 nm UV light for 420 hours over 105 days), phosphate solutions (dissolved KH2PO4) ranging from 0.2 – 200 mg L-1 and a solid (g) to liquid (mL) ratio of 1: 150 at different values of pH (2 – 12) and different concentrations of background electrolyte (0 – 0.1 M NaNO3). The adsorption data were best fitted to linear and Freundlich isotherms. In initial experiments where pH was not fixed and with a background electrolyte of 0.1M NaNO3, Kd values ranged from 3.37 to 27.65 L kg-1, log Kf from 1.21 to 1.96 and 1/n from 0.36 to 0.84. Exposure of the MP to 185 nm UV radiation led to the appearance of a C=O functional group in the MP; the partition coefficient Kd, calculated from the linear isotherm did not increase but the logKf value derived from fits to the Freundlich isotherm increased by a factor of 1.5. Kd values for soils were 3 – 7.5 times greater than those for MPs and log Kf values 1.1 - 1.7 greater. In the experiments in which initial pH and ionic strength were varied, adsorption was similar across all treatments with adsorption parameters for the higher organic content soil sometimes having the highest values and the pristine microplastic the lowest. In the desorption experiments most of the adsorbed phosphate desorbed. Overall our findings indicate that despite their ability to adsorb phosphate, MPs are unlikely to control the fate and behaviour of phosphate in soil.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 20 Dec 2023


  • microplastic
  • soil
  • phosphate
  • adsorption
  • desorption

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