Laboratory Preparation of Samples

Extraction of Microplastics

The densities of common consumer-plastic polymers range between 0.8 (silicone) and 1.4 g cm−3 (e.g. polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyvinyl chloride (PVC)) while expanded plastic foams have only a fraction of the densities of the original polymer (e.g. expanded polystyrene (EPS) <0.05 g cm−3). Microplastic particles can thus be separated from matrices with higher densities, such as sediments (2.65 g cm−3), by flotation with saturated salt solutions of high density. The dried sediment sample is mixed with the concentrated salt solution and agitated (e.g. by stirring, shaking, aeration) for a certain amount of time. Plastic particles float to the surface or stay in suspension while heavy particles such as sand grains settle quickly. Subsequently, microplastics are recovered by removing the supernatant. Depending on the solution used, different fractions of the range of consumer polymers are targeted—the higher the density of the solution the more polymer types can be extracted. Often a saturated NaCl solution is used for the extraction of microplastics (Thompson et al. 2004; Browne et al. 2010; Ng and Obbard 2006; Claessens et al. 2011; Browne et al. 2011). Although being an inexpensive and environment-friendly approach, not all common polymers are extracted (e.g. PVC, PET, polycarbonate (PC), polyurethane (PUR)) because of the relatively low density of the solution (~1.2 g cm−3). Other solutions used include sodium polytungstate solution (1.4 g cm−3) (Corcoran et al. 2009), zinc chloride solution (1.5–

1.7 g cm−3) (Imhof et al. 2012; Liebezeit and Dubaish 2012) or sodium iodine solution (1.8 g cm−3) (Nuelle et al. 2014). These high-density solutions are suitable for the extraction of most of the common user plastics. For financial/environmental reasons the use of zinc chloride and the recycling of the saturated solution by pressure filtration is highly recommended.

There is great variability in the extraction techniques applied. The approaches range from simply stirring the sediment sample in a saturated salt solution (classical setup) (Thompson et al. 2004; Claessens et al. 2011) to the use of an elutriation/fluidisation with subsequent flotation (Claessens et al. 2013; Nuelle et al. 2014) or the extraction with a novel instrument, the “Microplastic Sediment Separator” (MPSS) (Imhof et al. 2012). The extraction efficiencies vary between the techniques used but also depend on the particle shape, size and the polymer origin of the model particles used during recovery experiments. The classic extraction setup reaches recoveries of 80–100 % (Fries et al. 2013) but recovers small microplastics insufficiently (mean recovery rate 40 %, mean particle size 40–309 µm) (Imhof et al. 2012), whereas new approaches achieve high recovery rates of 68–99 % (Nuelle et al. 2014), 96–100 % (Imhof et al. 2012) and 98–100 % (Claessens et al. 2013). Small particles (<500 µm) are more difficult to extract from sediments. Therefore, time-consuming repeated extraction steps are recommended to maximize recovery (Claessens et al. 2013; Nuelle et al. 2014; Browne et al. 2011). Only the MPSS showed a recovery rate of 96 % for small microplastics in a single extraction step (Imhof et al. 2012).

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