[IQP] Developing a System to Monitor Microplastics on Icelandic Shores

Tyra Alexander
Alexis Buzzell
Cecilia Schroeder
Jason Strauss

Abstract: Microplastics are a growing problem worldwide, and their effects are only starting to be
understood. Our goal was to produce a beach monitoring method that can help community
groups in Iceland track changes in microplastic pollution. We tested multiple methods from
previous studies and combined aspects into one method that is time efficient, simple, and low
cost. We also developed an easy to use, consistent verification test. The final method is an ideal
way for community scientists to monitor microplastics in beach sand. To keep Iceland’s shores
clean and marine ecosystems healthy, monitoring microplastics will be the first step in
understanding plastic pollution.

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Executive Summary

Introduction and Background

Society is heavily reliant on plastic products. There are 300 million tons of plastic produced every year, and nearly half is used once and then thrown away (Dwyer, 2017; Plastic Oceans, n.d.). Once plastics are thrown away, they enter the ocean through boats, rivers, and landfills (National Geographic Society, 2012 a). Currents in the ocean can carry plastic to beaches around the world.

Iceland is at risk because it is an island nation and the population relies heavily on fish for its diet (The World Factbook, 2018). The fishing industry employs 5% of the workforce in Iceland, and is an important aspect of the Icelandic lifestyle and culture (The World Factbook, 2018). However, a study done in an Icelandic nature reserve found that the fishing industry was the greatest contributor to plastic pollution on the shores (Kienitz, 2013). Fishing nets and gear can end up on the shores and affect tourism, Iceland’s largest industry (Fontaine, 2015). To keep beaches attractive and safe for tourists, cities may have to spend time and money cleaning beaches.

Larger pieces of plastic can fragment into microplastics from environmental factors such as sunlight, wind, and currents when in the ocean (Halle et al., 2016). When marine animals ingest microplastics, harmful chemicals work their way up the food chain to humans and other organisms through the process of biomagnification (NOAA, n.d.; Duis & Coors, n.d.). Smaller pieces of plastics can be more harmful to species than larger pieces because smaller pieces absorb and release more chemicals as they break down. BPA, a common chemical found in plastics, mimics hormones in animals and humans (National Geographic Society, 2012 a). Traces of BPA have been found in the breast milk of mothers and urine of children (Mendonca, Hauser, Calafat, Arbuckle, & Duty, 2014). Monitoring microplastics is important in reducing the harmful effects of microplastic pollution.

Scientists have made efforts in developing microplastic monitoring methods; however, more research needs to be done. With microplastic pollution growing on a global scale, scientists can utilize community science, also known as citizen science, to help gather necessary data. By involving community scientists, Iceland can develop a database that can be used to track changes in microplastic pollution on their shores.

Project Goal and Objectives
The goal of this project was to produce a beach monitoring method that can help community groups in Iceland track changes in microplastic pollution. To accomplish this we laid out four objectives.
Objective 1: Determine which methods of gathering samples are applicable to Iceland’s beaches.
Objective 2: Determine which methods to pilot test for separating and analyzing microplastics from samples.
Objective 3: Determine the willingness of volunteers and organizations to use a monitoring method.
Objective 4: Identify and communicate the most appropriate method to monitor microplastics for community scientists on Icelandic shores.

During our time in Iceland, we evaluated several methods used in previous microplastic studies to gather sediment on three different beaches. We modified these methods because we needed to use quantities that were realistic of community scientists. We were not evaluating the actual concentration and distribution of microplastics during our pilot studies. The first of these modified gathering methods was that of the Baykeeper Beach Litter Audit (Bayas, Buckley, Ford, & Lawes, 2017). We placed a square meter quadrant by the vegetation at the top of the beach, at the high tide line, and at the midpoint between these two quadrants. We only used one transect, rather than three, to save time because we were only evaluating the ease of use for Icelandic beaches. We then gathered the top centimeter of sand with our hands for analysis (Bayas et al., 2017).

The next gathering method we evaluated was based on a master’s thesis conducted at the University of Akureyri (Dippo, 2012). We made a square meter quadrant at the high tide line and gathered the top two centimeters of sand. We only used one quadrant for our procedure, and we did not collect the suggested seven and a half liter sample size because we needed to test time efficiency for community scientists (Dippo, 2012).

The last gathering method we tested was based on the procedure of a study performed through Leiden University (Lots, Behrens, Vijver, Horton, & Bosker, 2017). We gathered the top centimeter of sand with our hands at 10 meter intervals on the high tide line. We gathered one handful of sand at each sample site, rather than the 100 gram sample the study recommended (Lots et al., 2017), since we did not have the means to measure these samples and community scientists might not, either.

We also evaluated several methods of analyzing the samples we had collected. First, we placed the collected sand samples in a kitchen sieve and poured water over it until all of the sand had passed through. Any material left in the sieve was placed in a bag for further analysis. We also used hand picking. While sorting through our sample sites, anything that was not sand, rocks, shells or organic matter was placed in a sample bag.

For further analysis, we used ocean water and a saturated salt solution in density separation tests. We placed the sand we had gathered into the salt solutions and stirred until any microplastics rose to the top. In ocean water, the only particles that floated were too small to identify. In the saturated salt solution, we found that nothing from our samples floated. Lastly, since our tests with ocean water and the salt solution did not yield any conclusive results, we tried placing our sand samples in corn syrup and waited for the sample to separate.

We conducted interviews to determine the willingness of volunteers to perform a method to monitor microplastics. We asked questions related to how much time they would be willing to put in and what resources they would be willing to supply. We conducted the interviews at beach cleanups and sent out an electronic survey to environmental organizations, including the Blue Army and SEEDS.

The final method we piloted combined elements from other methods. We called it The Star Method and considered criteria such as ease of use, time commitment, and cost and availability of materials. To begin the Star Method, we located a landmark at the top of the beach. We then placed a stake in line with this landmark at the high tide line. At this stake, we drew a circle with a radius of 1.5 feet and then used our hands to pick out microplastics. After hand picking each circle, we placed these particles in a jar filled half way with corn syrup and waited for any microplastics to float. We counted the particles that floated and recorded the number found at the sample location. We then walked ten paces from the marker towards the rocks or vegetation at the top of the beach and repeated this process. We also did this at ten paces left of the marker, ten paces right of the marker, and ten paces from the marker towards the water.

Key Findings
Even when using simplified versions of the Baykeeper Beach Litter Audit methodology and the procedure used in master’s research at the University of Akureyri, we spent on average 45 minutes conducting these methods. The Baykeeper Beach Litter Audit methodology seemed extraneous because the quadrants were placed very close together due to the location of the high tide line (Bayas et al., 2017). The procedure following the master’s thesis conducted at the University of Akureyri was also incompatible with community science because the method resulted in larger volumes of sand to sort through (Dippo, 2012). The modified procedure of the study done at Leiden University was compatible because it took no more than 10 minutes to conduct, but the required materials were not cost effective (Lots et al., 2017).

Identification of microplastics by eye proved to be difficult because they blended in with pebbles and shells. For this reason, we tested methods to separate microplastics from other materials. One method was sieving, but larger pieces of shell or rock were incapable of being sieved from the sample. Picking microplastics by hand was the least time consuming method, but we could not conclude all microplastics were gathered or that the gathered sample was composed only of microplastics. To increase accuracy from hand picking or sieving, we used density separation tests. We found that salt water and ocean water do not have densities high enough for many plastics to float. Corn syrup, however, has a density of 1.4 grams per milliliter, which is higher than most plastics, but lower than rocks (Science Buddies, 2016). Corn syrup was most effective in separating plastics from sand, rocks and shells. Additionally, corn syrup is a low cost, readily available, and feasible analysis to help count microplastics from within collected samples. For this reason, we decided corn syrup would serve as the analysis for the final method.

We conducted interviews to help us develop the Star Method. We received 14 responses from interviews and surveys. Of that number, 13 have participated in beach cleanups and had previous knowledge of microplastics. If a microplastic monitoring protocol was established, seven participants agreed they would participate and five responded unsure or maybe.

The Star Method has a sample site in between the low and high tide lines and three sample sites along the high tide line, because debris most commonly gathered there. There is also an additional sample site above the high tide line. The materials needed for the Star Method were cheap and easy to find, and included an object to mark location, gloves, corn syrup, a spoon, a container to dispose of microplastics, and two glass or metal containers. The Star Method took about 20 minutes for one person to conduct.

After developing the Star Method for community scientists to use in Iceland, we have several recommendations for them to use in the future. Our first recommendation is that community scientists should change the frequency of monitoring beaches based on the concentration of microplastics found. Monitoring using the Star Method should be performed yearly, but if more microplastics are found on a given beach, monitoring should be done more often to better gauge how the concentration is changing in more polluted areas. We created a website that allows community scientists to record their data, access instructional videos, and view a manual. In the future, we would like community scientists to be able to view updated graphics of the data recorded. Future initiatives could improve upon our website to make this possible. These recommendations would help further develop methods of monitoring microplastics for community scientists in Iceland. Our project has potential to create baseline data that can bring awareness to the prevalence of microplastic pollution and the damage it causes not only in the marine environment, but in humans as well.