Microplastic contamination of the oceans is one of the world’s most pressing environmental concerns. The terrestrial component of the global microplastic budget is not well understood because sources, stores and fluxes are poorly quantified. We report catchment-wide patterns of microplastic contamination, classified by type, size, and density, in channel bed sediments at 40 sites across urban, suburban and rural river catchments in northwest England. Microplastic contamination was pervasive on all river channel beds. We found multiple urban contamination hotspots with a maximum microplastic concentration of approximately 517,000 particles m-2. After a period of severe flooding in winter 2015/16 all sites were resampled. Microplastic concentrations had fallen at 28 sites and 18 saw a decrease of one order of magnitude. The flooding exported ~70% of the microplastic load stored on these river beds (equivalent to 0.85 ± 0.27 tonnes or 43 ± 14 billion particles) and eradicated microbead contamination at 7 sites. We conclude that microplastic contamination is efficiently flushed from river catchments during flooding.