Studying Microplastic Fingerprints to Determine Their Sources
Updated: Apr 24
Using environmental forensics Dr. Roxana Sühring explains plastic additives can generate “microplastic fingerprints”
Microplastics are plastic pieces 5 millimetres or less in size. Their small size and diversity in shape, colour, chemical compositions and more make it exceedingly difficult to determine where they come from, especially when they are found in our environment.
In some ways, they are the perfect crime, a puzzle that’s extremely difficult to solve. That is where microplastic expert, Dr. Roxana Sühring comes in.
We like to call Dr. Sühring a microplastic detective; just like in your favourite crime dramas, Dr. Sühring of Ryerson University uses clues to uncover the culprits of microplastic pollution. Culprits might be major contributors, like certain companies, or activities that become major sources of microplastic pollution.
When presented with a microplastic crime scene, Dr. Sühring uses environmental forensics to determine where this pollution came from.
We use crime scene investigation as an analogy in this article, but Dr. Sühring argues that environmental forensics might not be that dissimilar to criminal investigations.
"One can argue, and many often do, that environmental pollution and pollution of specific communities can constitute a crime," Dr. Sühring
“One can argue, and many often do, that environmental pollution and pollution of specific communities can constitute a crime, but even if it isn’t something that will go to the criminal justice system and courts, a lot of the approaches that are being used to solve crimes involves finding out who did what...In terms of plastic pollution and the environment, one of the questions could be, where does this pollution come from?” explains Dr. Sühring.
Dr. Sühring specializes in environmental forensics and works to “fingerprint” microplastics. Fingerprints are used in forensics to match a person to the crime. In microplastics research, Dr. Sühring uses the properties of microplastics to match plastic particles found in the environment to their source.
“That will allow us to figure out if there is something we can do to reduce those sources and emissions,” says Dr. Sühring.
Oh no! This just in...
Case File #1: The Scene & Informant’s Statement: [click to reveal the clue]
It was a dark dreary day. While out for a walk the informant stumbled upon a bunch of tiny black particles in the neighbourhood you’ve just moved into. These tiny particles look like plastic dust and appear to be increasing in amounts since you moved into this neighbourhood.
You need to get to the bottom of this, and time is running out.
Where do you start? Using Dr. Sühring's explanation of environmental forensics, we can solve this crime together. Click the links below for clues!
Find The Finger Print
Compare results in labs across the globe
Examine the scene
Find the Fingerprint
The microplastic fingerprint is found in the plastic additives, an “often overlooked” element of plastic contamination, explains Dr. Sühring.
"A plastic is not a plastic, not a plastic. Plastics themselves are a chemical mixture," Dr. Sühring.
“A plastic is not a plastic, not a plastic. Plastics themselves are a chemical mixture. They have the polymer, [the part] that makes up the plastic backbone essentially. But then, depending on how you want to use this plastic, different additivities need to be put into this product,” says Dr. Sühring.
Let’s run through some examples. Click the links to find out what might be in the fingerprint of the products below:
Plastic electronic equipment
Flame retardants may be included to ensure the plastic equipment does not catch fire when heating up.
Some plastic products have functional additives, including surface treatment. Products like food containers may have liquid and water resistant or stain resistant additives.