Universiteit Leiden

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Determining global distribution of microplastics by using citizen science

The objective of this study is to better understand the distribution of microplastics in the environment. More specifically, we will quantify the abundance and distribution of microplastics on beaches.

Thijs Bosker
The Gratama Foundation of the Leiden University Fund (project number 2015-08).

Short abstract

Microplastics (<5mm) are small pieces of plastics that are ubiquitous in the environment, and therefore contaminants of emerging global concern. In this project we investigate their global distribution using citizen science and in-depth case studies  in the Netherlands and the Lesser Antilles.

Project description

Microplastics (<5mm) are contaminants of emerging global concern. They have received considerable attention in scientific research, resulting in an increased awareness of microplastics 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.

In this project we are now assessing regional and global variations in beach microplastics using this standardized approach for two 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.

Secondly, we are conducting two 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 physico-chemical characteristics such as size, shape and polymer type.

This research will provide, for the first time, a systematic comparison on levels of microplastics on beaches at both a regional and global scale.

Besley A, Vijver MG, Behrens P, Bosker T. 2017. A standardized method for sampling and extraction methods for quantifying microplastics in beach sand. Mar Pollut Bull 114(1):77-83. Epub 2016 Sep 7.

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