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Track and trace: Microplastic identification and sourcing methods, a case study from the Conwy Estuary

Gareth H. Rogers, David Patrick Gold, Uche Onwukwe, Arnaud Gallois, Amy McGarry, Mark Rees, Freya Watkins, Lorna Anguilano, Jesus Ojeda Ledo Orcid Logo, Natalie Caughtry

KTN: Global Research and Innovation in Plastics Sustainability (GRIPS) 2021

Swansea University Author: Jesus Ojeda Ledo Orcid Logo

Abstract

Plastic pollution is an increasing environmental concern, with an estimated 8 million tons of plastic accumulating in the world’s oceans annually. While large pieces of plastic are a well-known problem and can cause entanglement and injuries from ingestion to marine life, smaller (<5mm) particles...

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Published in: KTN: Global Research and Innovation in Plastics Sustainability (GRIPS) 2021
Published: 2021
Online Access: https://ktn-uk.org/events/global-research-innovation-in-plastics-sustainability/
URI: https://cronfa.swan.ac.uk/Record/cronfa61830
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Abstract: Plastic pollution is an increasing environmental concern, with an estimated 8 million tons of plastic accumulating in the world’s oceans annually. While large pieces of plastic are a well-known problem and can cause entanglement and injuries from ingestion to marine life, smaller (<5mm) particles of plastic, known as microplastics, are less visible and may present an even bigger challenge to coastal ecosystems, including effects on plants as well as animal life. Microplastics are categorized in two groups; primary microplastics are originally created as small particulates and secondary microplastics which are created through the abrasion of larger plastic over time. In order to assess the size of the issue and its effect the first step is to investigate the level (quantity) and type of microplastics deposited within coastal sediments (including rivers, estuaries and beaches). This first step is fundamental for the reconstruction of the source of the pollution and consequently the possibility of mitigating the issue. A methodology that approaches the microplastic particles as sedimentological grains using mineralogical techniques is presented here to determine the scale of plastic pollution in the environment. Automated mineralogical tools, such as Quantitative Evaluation of Minerals by Scanning Electron Microscopy (QEMSCAN®), combined with Micro-Fourier Transform Infrared spectroscopy (μFT-IR) are able to accurately quantify the amount of microplastic in a known sample volume and also identify the composition, range of ‘grain’-sizes and morphologies (e.g. primary fibres, hemi/spheres, and secondary abraded/broken down material etc.) of the plastic particles. Using beach sand samples collected from the Conwy Estuary in North Wales, United Kingdom, we present an integrated workflow for the mass, rapid screening of samples for the presence of microplastic using QEMSCAN®, supplemented by µFT-IR to identify the composition of the plastics. We propose that this method can work as an effective workflow for large-scale area surveys with applications including assisting government agencies quantify the magnitude of plastic pollution at a location and the scale of clean up required to remove it. In addition, this approach can be used to determine an index of beach ‘cleanliness’ with regard to the amount of plastic pollution. The final step is to link the identified plastics to their potential sources. This requires further evaluation of water flow, the uses of the coastlines at the site and upstream (including urban and industrial sources) and the potential impact of large plastic clusters offshore.
College: Faculty of Science and Engineering