Separation and Analysis of Microplastics and Nanoplastics in Complex Environmental Samples


Brian Nguyen  1 Dominique Claveau-Mallet  1 Laura M Hernandez  1 Elvis Genbo Xu  1 Jeffrey M Farner  1 Nathalie Tufenkji  1

March 29, 2023


The vast amount of plastic waste emitted into the environment and the increasing concern of potential harm to wildlife has made microplastic and nanoplastic pollution a growing environmental concern. Plastic pollution has the potential to cause both physical and chemical harm to wildlife directly or via sorption, concentration, and transfer of other environmental contaminants to the wildlife that ingest plastic. 

Small particles of plastic pollution, termed microplastics (>100 nm and <5 mm) or nanoplastics (<100 nm), can form through fragmentation of larger pieces of plastic. These small particles are especially concerning because of their high specific surface area for sorption of contaminants as well as their potential to translocate in the bodies of organisms. These same small particles are challenging to separate and identify in environmental samples because their size makes handling and observation difficult. 

As a result, our understanding of the environmental prevalence of nanoplastics and microplastics is limited. Generally, the smaller the size of the plastic particle, the more difficult it is to separate from environmental samples. 

Currently employed passive density and size separation techniques to isolate plastics from environmental samples are not well suited to separate microplastics and nanoplastics. Passive flotation is hindered by the low buoyancy of small particles as well as the difficulty of handling small particles on the surface of flotation media. Here we suggest exploring alternative techniques borrowed from other fields of research to improve separation of the smallest plastic particles. 

These techniques include adapting active density separation (centrifugation) from cell biology and taking advantage of surface-interaction-based separations from analytical chemistry. Furthermore, plastic pollution is often challenging to quantify in complex matrices such as biological tissues and wastewater. 

Biological and wastewater samples are important matrices that represent key points in the fate and sources of plastic pollution, respectively. In both kinds of samples, protocols need to be optimized to increase throughput, reduce contamination potential, and avoid destruction of plastics during sample processing. 

To this end, we recommend adapting digestion protocols to match the expected composition of the nonplastic material as well as taking measures to reduce and account for contamination. Once separated, plastics in an environmental sample should ideally be characterized both visually and chemically. 

 With existing techniques, microplastics and nanoplastics are difficult to characterize or even detect. Their low mass and small size provide limited signal for visual, vibrational spectroscopic, and mass spectrometric analyses. Each of these techniques involves trade-offs in throughput, spatial resolution, and sensitivity. 

To accurately identify and completely quantify microplastics and nanoplastics in environmental samples, multiple analytical techniques applied in tandem are likely to be required.