Sampling for Microplastics

Today, synthetic polymers are omnipresent and daily life without plastics is inconceivable. As a consequence, even microplastic sampling, preparation and analysis procedures themselves are affected by the ubiquity of synthetic polymers in the environment. Hence, a multitude of contamination sources from sampling equipment through clothes or airborne particles can compromise the analysis of microplastics in the environment. This can lead to a great overestimation of concentrations of microplastics in samples. Because of their ability to hover in air, especially fibres have a high contamination potential and can cause problems during microplastic analysis (Hidalgo-Ruz et al. 2012; Nuelle et al. 2014; Norén 2007; Norén and Naustvoll 2010). Thus, a special focus should be laid on the prevention of contamination (Hidalgo-Ruz et al. 2012). Potential sources of contamination should be avoided by replacing plastic devices or laboratory ware by non-plastic material and the strict use of control samples is highly recommended. Analysis of control samples facilitates the identification of the source in case a contamination has occurred.

Water Samples

Because of their relatively low concentrations in the environment sampling of microplastic particles generally requires large sample volumes. Thus, samples from the open water are usually taken with plankton nets of different mesh sizes. The sea surface is sampled for fl microplastics by manta trawls (Eriksen et al. 2013a, b; Doyle et al. 2011) or neuston nets (Morét-Ferguson et al. 2010; Carpenter and Smith 1972; Colton et al. 1974). While neuston catamarans (Fig. 8.1a) can be operated even in higher waves, a manta trawl (Fig. 8.1b) is best used in calm waters to prevent hopping on waves and damage to the device. The volume fi by a net is usually recorded by a fl wmeter mounted at the net opening, enabling the normalization to the fi water volume and thus a calculation of concentrations of microplastics (items/grams) per unit water volume. Relating concentrations to sampled area is also possible by multiplying trawl distance by the horizontal width of the net opening. The water column can be sampled for suspended microplastics by trawling with different plankton nets, e.g. CalCOFI (California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations) or Bongo nets (Doyle et al. 2011). Trawling speed depends on weather conditions and currents, but usually lies between 1 and 5 knots. Trawling time depends on seston concentrations and lies between a few minutes up to several hours (Boerger et al. 2010). The plankton sample is concentrated in the cod-end of the net and after recovery the net has to be carefully rinsed from the exterior to assure that all plankton and debris are washed into the cod-end (Doyle et al. 2011). It is important to assure that no residual sample is left in the net, which would lead to a carryover of microplastics to the next sample. The content of the codend is fi transferred to a sample container and fi ed with plastic friendly fi ves (e.g. formalin) or stored frozen. If the particles are directly sorted they should be dried and kept in the dark until further analysis (Hidalgo-Ruz et al. 2012).

The size of the particles retained and also the filterable volume is a direct consequence of the mesh size used. The mesh sizes used for sampling in previous studies varied between 50 and 3000 µm (Hidalgo-Ruz et al. 2012). Another factor influencing the filtered volume is the net size, i.e. the area, which acts as filter. Depending on the seston concentration in the water, a few thousand litres to several hundred cubic metres can be filtered until a net becomes clogged. Seasons with red tides or plankton and jellyfish blooms are generally unfavorable for sampling large volumes of water. Nets are usually 3–4.5 m long and a mesh size of around 300 µm is most commonly used. These nets do not sample microplastic particles <300 µm quantitatively but allow for sampling of larger volumes of water. In order to avoid the risk of

Fig. 8.1 A neuston catamaran (a) and a manta trawl (b) during trawling

clogging nets at small mesh sizes, only few studies used mesh sizes <300 µm. The non-standardized use of different nets and mesh sizes seriously impedes the comparability of data sets on pelagic microplastic concentrations.

Besides common net sampling, other techniques are occasionally used for assessing microplastic concentrations in the water column: bulk sampling with subsequent fi (Ng and Obbard 2006; Dubaish and Liebezeit 2013), screening Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) samples (Thompson et al. 2004) or using direct in situ fi tration (Norén and Naustvoll 2010). A highly promising technique, currently under development, is the use of direct fractionated pressure fi of large (>1 m3) volumes of water through a fi cascade (developed by -4H-JENA engineering GmbH). This approach theoretically allows for the simultaneous sampling of different size fractions of microplastics down to <10 µm and thus enables a more comprehensive resolution of the size spectrum of microplastics.

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