Environmental Management

, Volume 61, Issue 1, pp 1–8 | Cite as

Are We Underestimating Microplastic Contamination in Aquatic Environments?

  • Jeremy L. Conkle
  • Christian D. Báez Del Valle
  • Jeffrey W. Turner


Plastic debris, specifically microplastic in the aquatic environment, is an escalating environmental crisis. Efforts at national scales to reduce or ban microplastics in personal care products are starting to pay off, but this will not affect those materials already in the environment or those that result from unregulated products and materials. To better inform future microplastic research and mitigation efforts this study (1) evaluates methods currently used to quantify microplastics in the environment and (2) characterizes the concentration and size distribution of microplastics in a variety of products. In this study, 50 published aquatic surveys were reviewed and they demonstrated that most (~80%) only account for plastics ≥ 300 μm in diameter. In addition, we surveyed 770 personal care products to determine the occurrence, concentration and size distribution of polyethylene microbeads. Particle concentrations ranged from 1.9 to 71.9 mg g−1 of product or 1649 to 31,266 particles g−1 of product. The large majority ( > 95%) of particles in products surveyed were less than the 300 μm minimum diameter, indicating that previous environmental surveys could be underestimating microplastic contamination. To account for smaller particles as well as microfibers from synthetic textiles, we strongly recommend that future surveys consider methods that materials < 300 μm in diameter.


Plastic debris Polyethylene microbeads Aquatic environments Oceans Environmental loading 



Student support was provided by the Department of Homeland Security Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (DHS-STEM) Scholars from Universidad del Este-Carolina, Puerto Rico.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Supplementary material

267_2017_947_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (2.9 mb)
Supplementary Information


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Physical & Environmental SciencesTexas A&M University-Corpus ChristiCorpus ChristiUSA
  2. 2.School of Science and TechnologyUniversidad Del EsteCarolinaUSA
  3. 3.Department of Life SciencesTexas A&M University-Corpus ChristiCorpus ChristiUSA

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