Environmental Chemistry Environmental Chemistry Society
Environmental problems - Chemical approaches
REVIEW

Questions of size and numbers in environmental research on microplastics: methodological and conceptual aspects

Montserrat Filella
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A Institute F.-A. Forel, University of Geneva, Route de Suisse 10, CH-1290 Versoix, Switzerland. Email: montserrat.filella@unige.ch

B SCHEMA, Rue Principale 92, L-6990 Rameldange, Luxembourg.




Montserrat Filella is a chemist and teaches Environmental Chemistry at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. Her main research interests focus on the understanding of the physicochemical processes regulating the behaviour of chemical elements in environmental compartments, mainly by combining field and laboratory measurements with physicochemical calculations. The three main axes of her research concern the study of natural colloids, natural organic matter (quantification and interaction with trace elements) and ‘less-studied’ elements. She is particularly interested in the exploration and use of critical appraisal and evidence-based methods.

Environmental Chemistry 12(5) 527-538 https://doi.org/10.1071/EN15012
Submitted: 15 January 2015  Accepted: 21 May 2015   Published: 14 August 2015

Environmental context. Microplastics, either purposefully manufactured or formed by fragmentation of discarded ‘end-of-life’ macroplastic items, are accumulating in environmental compartments. As more and more data are collected on microplastics in the environment, discussion of two issues has become indispensable: (i) how reliable are the results in terms of the inherent capabilities and limitations of current methods used for sampling, counting and measuring microplastic particles; and (ii) how can the fate of microplastics be understood in the context of natural particles and colloids?

Abstract. A first important step in evaluating the impact of microplastic pollution in natural systems is assessing the reliability of the results obtained according to the inherent capabilities and limitations of the methods used for sampling, counting and measuring microplastic particles. This study, based on the critical reading of 55 studies containing quantitative microplastic data in waters and sediments, is an attempt to analyse these issues in the light of existing knowledge in the field of natural colloid studies. Existing results are highly dependent on the sampling and methodological procedure chosen and are essentially descriptive. Moreover, often they lack standardisation and adequate reporting of basic information such as the meaning of the size parameter measured. Colloid theory may provide the theoretical background needed to explain microplastic behaviour or, at least, to identify the parameters (e.g. density, surface characteristics, shape) that need to be known in order to gain a predictive knowledge of the subject. They are introduced and discussed. Finally, microplastics are not alone in environmental compartments. For this reason, when possible, published microplastic particle size distributions in natural waters have been quantitatively situated in the context of natural particles.


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