Isolating Plastics to Analyze Pollutants


MES/COS/CEE Professor Aron Stubbins’ research on “An optimized acidic digestion for the isolation of microplastics from biota-rich samples and cellulose acetate matrices” was published in Environmental Pollution.

Plastic pollution is a growing concern. To analyze plastics in environmental samples, plastics need to be isolated. We present an acidic/oxidative method optimized to preserve plastics while digesting synthetic cellulose acetate and a range of organics encountered in environmental samples. Cellulose acetate was chosen for optimization as it can be purchased as a reference material, can co-occur with plastics in environmental samples and, if it can be completely digested, is a potential filter material for the collection of nano- and micro-plastics from natural waters. Other forms of particulate organic matter (POM) were chosen to provide a range of chemistries that might alter digestion efficiency and due to the interest in the community of isolating plastics from samples where these organics occur. For instance, microalgal POM occurs in lake and ocean waters, riverine POM in rivers, and inclusion of tuna provides a test for the suitability of the method for isolating plastics from animal tissues. The method is a one-pot overnight (16–18 h) digestion in 5 M nitric acid with 0.3 M sodium persulfate heated to 80 °C. The method provides quantitative removal of cellulose acetate (exceeding detection limits), near quantitative removal of microalgal POM and Albacore tuna tissue (>99%), but only 86% of urban river POM, all while retaining >99% by mass of C–C bonded polymers polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene and >96% by mass of polyethylene terephthalate. Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR) and %-C content analysis confirmed plastic polymer stability during digestion. However, some additives in appear susceptible to digestion with FT-IR results indicating the loss of N,N′-ethylenebis(stearamide) from polyethylene. This method provides a simpler and more effective method than many in the literature. We present recommendations for the application of this method, as well as limitations and areas for future improvement.

Related Faculty: Aron Stubbins

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering