Developing a rapid-screening approach to identifying and quantifying microplastics

Developing a rapid-screening approach to identifying and quantifying microplastics

Cefas scientists worked with colleagues at the University of East Anglia to develop a new, cheaper and quicker approach to revealing the presence and levels of microplastics in our waters and marine environments.

Microplastics are plastic particles, often caused by larger pieces of litter breaking down in the oceans. They have been found in water and sediment samples across the world and are a danger to marine life which often mistake them for food.

The new fluorescent detection technique uses Nile Red stain and blue light to highlight the pieces of microplastic within the sample. The scientists then photograph the laboratory setup using an orange filter to detect fluorescence emission and developed image-analysis software to identify and quantify particles of microplastic. Other non-plastic particles within the sample do not absorb the stain and so do not emit the fluorescent glow, distinguishing between problem microplastics and other particles which appear similar to the eye of both humans and animals (such as phytoplankton).

Previous methods of microplastic detection required large pieces of equipment and often meant samples had to be shipped to central laboratories making testing slower and significantly more expensive. The new technique is affordable and simple to set up and is already being deployed by Universities, NGOs and Cefas to establish pop-up microplastic laboratories to support our international programmes.

For more information, contact us or view the paper.