This study reviews particle size distribution (PSD) analysis for industrial effluents. Evaluation of available experimental data indicated that the approach started with arbitrary selection of size distribution. Following a pioneering study on pulp and paper effluent, sequential filtration and ultrafiltration has established itself as a prescribed methodology complementing respirometric assessment of chemical oxygen demand (COD) fractionation based on biodegradation characteristics. Results indicated that most industrial effluents exhibited a COD distribution where soluble fractions accounted for the majority of the total COD, with significant implications for the understanding of membrane bioreactor (MBR) systems. Observations on the accumulation of soluble COD in the reactor to levels much higher than the permeate COD paved the way to define an experimental PSD methodology for assessing the effective filtration size for the membrane module. This novel parameter considered in the light of reported PSD analyses showed that a portion of what was conventionally considered soluble COD would be retained by the size barrier of the membrane and recycled back to the reactor. Thus, MBR systems require a new mathematical model structure that would include a modified COD fractionation, account for the retained COD fractions as additional model components and utilize related mass balance relationships in order to yield an accurate mechanistic description of microbial reactions taking place in the system. (c) 2021 Society of Chemical Industry (SCI).