Environmental Science and Pollution Research

, Volume 25, Issue 12, pp 11319–11332 | Cite as

A review of methods for measuring microplastics in aquatic environments

  • Lei Mai
  • Lian-Jun Bao
  • Lei Shi
  • Charles S. Wong
  • Eddy Y. Zeng
Review Article


An increasing number of reports have been published concerning microplastic (MP) pollution in aquatic environments. Methods used in these studies continue to be updated and lack standardization, so that an up-to-date review pertaining methods for MP research is needed. This critical review examines the analytical methods, including sampling, identification, and quantitation, for MP research. Samples are generally collected from water, sediment, and biota gastrointestinal tract. Manta nets or trawls are prevalently used in surface water sampling, while direct shoveling or box-corer grab are commonly applied in sediment sampling. Microplastics in biota are generally obtained by dissecting organisms and separating livers, gills, and guts. Density separation is frequently chosen to separate MPs from sample matrices. Chemical digestion can dissolve other organic materials and isolate MPs for further identification. Visual sorting should be combined with chemical composition analysis to better identify the polymer type. Pyrolysis or thermal decomposition gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry, Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, and Raman spectroscopy are currently the main technologies for MP identification. Units prevalently used to express MP abundance in water, sediment, and biota are “particles per m3,” “particles per m2,” and “particles per individual,” respectively. As MP abundances often varied with the methods used, we recommend that analytical protocols of MPs should better be standardized and optimized. Despite the important progress in analysis of MPs, detection technologies for identifying nano-sized plastic particles are still lacking, and therefore should be developed swiftly.


Microplastics Analytical method Sampling Identification Quantitation Aquatic environment 



We would like to thank W. Tyler Mehler for assistance with editing the manuscript.


The present study was financially supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology of China (Nos. 2016YFC1402200 and 2017ZX07301005), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Canada Research Chairs Program.

Supplementary material

11356_2018_1692_MOESM1_ESM.doc (118 kb)
ESM 1 (DOC 118 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lei Mai
    • 1
  • Lian-Jun Bao
    • 1
  • Lei Shi
    • 1
  • Charles S. Wong
    • 1
    • 2
  • Eddy Y. Zeng
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Environment and Guangdong Key Laboratory of Environmental Pollution and HealthJinan UniversityGuangzhouChina
  2. 2.Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences and Department of ChemistryThe University of WinnipegWinnipegCanada

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