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Isotope ratio mass spectrometry and spectroscopic techniques for microplastics characterization

Birch, QT., Potter, PM., Pinto, PX., Dionysiou, DD., Al-Abed, SR.,


Micro- and nano-scale plastic particles in the environment result from their direct release and degradation of larger plastic debris. Relative to macro-sized plastics, these small particles are of special concern due to their potential impact on marine, freshwater, and terrestrial systems. While microplastic (MP) pollution has been widely studied in geographic regions globally, many questions remain about its origins. It is assumed that urban environments are the main contributors but systematic studies are lacking. The absence of standard methods to characterize and quantify MPs and smaller particles in environmental and biological matrices has hindered progress in understanding their geographic origins and sources, distribution, and impact. Hence, the development and standardization of methods is needed to establish the potential environmental and human health risks. In this study, we investigated stable carbon isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS), attenuated total reflectance - Fourier transform infrared (ATR-FTIR) spectroscopy, and micro-Raman spectroscopy (μ-Raman) as complementary techniques for characterization of common plastics. Plastic items selected for comparative analysis included food packaging, containers, straws, and polymer pellets. The ability of IRMS to distinguish weathered samples was also investigated using the simulated weathering conditions of ultraviolet (UV) light and heat. Our IRMS results show a difference between the δ13C values for plant-derived and petroleum-based polymers. We also found differences between plastic items composed of the same polymer but from different countries, and between some recycled and nonrecycled plastics. Furthermore, increasing δ13C values were observed after exposure to UV light. The results of the three techniques, and their advantages and limitations, are discussed.

DOI: 10.1016/j.talanta.2020.121743