Determining global distribution of microplastics by combining citizen science and in-depth case studies
Microplastics (<5 mm) are contaminants of emerging global concern. They have received considerable attention in scientific research, resulting in an increased awareness of the issue among politicians and the general public. However, there has been significant variation in sampling and extraction procedures used to quantify microplastics levels. The difference in extraction procedures can especially impact study outcomes, making it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to directly compare results among studies. To address this, we recently developed a standard operating procedure (SOP) for sampling microplastics on beaches. We are now assessing regional and global variations in beach microplastics using this standardized approach for 2 research projects. Our first project involves the general public through citizen science. Participants collect sand samples from beaches using a basic protocol, and we subsequently extract and quantify microplastics in a central laboratory using the SOP. Presently, we have 80+ samples from around the world and expect this number to further increase. Second, we are conducting 2, in-depth, regional case studies: one along the Dutch coast (close to major rivers, a known source of microplastic input into marine systems), and the other on the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean (in the proximity to a hotspot of plastics in the North Atlantic Ocean). In both projects, we use our new SOP to determine regional variation in microplastics, including differences in physicochemical characteristics such as size, shape, and polymer type. Our research will provide, for the first time, a systematic comparison on levels of microplastics on beaches at both a regional and global scale.