Sediment Samples

Microplastics in sediments or beaches are currently more frequently analyzed than microplastics in the water column (Hidalgo-Ruz et al. 2012). Sampling approaches depend on the sampling location i.e. sampling sediments directly on beaches or sampling subtidal sediments from a ship.


Sampling beaches for microplastics is relatively easy and requires nothing more than a non-plastic sampling tool (tablespoon, trowel or small shovel), a frame or a corer to specify the sampling area and a container (if possible non-plastic) to store the sample. The quantity of samples reported in the literature varies between less than 500 g to up to 10 kg (Hidalgo-Ruz et al. 2012). While sampling on a beach poses no problem per se, the positioning of the sample location on the beach is still a matter of scientifi debate as the distribution of microplastic particles is as dynamic as the beach itself (Hidalgo-Ruz et al. 2012). The high-tide line where fl accumulates is sampled mostly (Browne et al. 2010). Commonly applied sampling strategies include random sampling at several locations on the beach, on transects perpendicular or parallel to the water or in single squares. Often, several samples are pooled for an integrated estimate of the microplastic contamination of a beach. Every single sampling location for the pooled sample is then defi as described above. Another point of concern is the sampling depth. Sampling the top fi e centimetres is a common approach (as also suggested by the TSG-ML), but sampling to a depth of 0.3 m is also reported in the literature (Claessens et al. 2011). If corers are used for sampling, different depth layers can be sampled so that microplastic concentrations can be related to sediment depth and eventually to the age of the corresponding sediment layer. The units of microplastic abundance reported depend on the sampling approach. Thus, abundance is normalized to sampling area, sediment weight or volume. Sampling sediments for microplastics at beaches might appear trivial. However, currently no standard protocol exists for sampling microplastics with respect to location, sampling technique and sample quantity, and thus the comparability of the data produced is limited. Accordingly, there is an urgent need for the development of standardized sampling approaches. Because of the patchy distribution of microplastics at beaches a standardized, spatially integrating sampling design appears reasonable and would facilitate the generation of comparable data. A fi step towards the standardization of sampling microplastics at beaches in the EU has been made by the TSG-ML (Hanke et al. 2013). They recommend to monitor microplastics at sandy beaches at the strandline with a minimum of fi e replicate samples separated by at least fi e metres and to distinguish two size categories: large microplastics (1–5 mm) and small microplastics (20 µm–1 mm). Small microplastics should be sampled from the top fi e centimetres with a metal spoon by combining several scoops at arm length in an arc-shaped area at the strand line to collect ca. 250 g of sediment; large microplastics should be sampled from the top fi e centimetres and several kilograms of sediment sample can be reduced by sieving over a 1-mm sieve directly at the beach.

Subtidal Sediments

Subtidal sediments can be sampled from vessels with grabs, e.g. Van Veen or Ekman grab or corers of different design, e.g. a multiple corer. Grabs tend to disturb the sediment and are suited for surface (e.g. top five centimetres) or bulk sampling, whereas undisturbed core samples enable the simultaneous sampling of surface and depth layers but yield smaller sample volumes. The size of the instrument applied as well as the time needed for its retrieval depends strongly on the water depth at the sampling location. The use of corers enables sampling to a water depth of more than 5,000 m (Van Cauwenberghe et al. 2013). Sediment samples are usually stored frozen or dried and kept in the dark until further analysis.

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