28 July 2021

Crime scene tape adapts to analyse plastic pollution

Self-adhesive tape can 'lift' microplastic particles from sample.

© Staffordshire University

An adhesive tape patented by researchers at Staffordshire University, UK, to recover trace evidence from crimes scenes is being adopted to analyse microplastics more efficiently.

Despite extensive global studies, there is no standardised approach for the collection and analysis of polymer particles of microplastics. Currently, studies regularly involve retrieving microplastic samples from water using a filtration method. Samples are commonly analysed in situ on the filter or after removal from it by hand, which is time consuming and risks accidental loss of the particles and cross-contamination. 

Claire Gwinnett, Professor of Forensic and Environmental Science, is part of the team that created Easylift tape more than a decade ago and has more recently applied her expertise in fibre analysis to microplastics. She explains, '[The] tape was developed for the forensic market. However, what we have found is that the same benefits are true when looking at particulates from any environment. We realised that it holds great potential for microplastics work particularly when you are out in the field, for example on a boat or on a beach, where the risk of losing or contaminating your microplastic samples is huge.'

A new paper, published in Environmental Advances, addresses the shortcomings of current research methods and sets out a new workflow using the tape. The technique uses the self-adhesive tape to 'lift' microplastic particles from a filter then safely preserves them between the tape and a sheet of suitable material – in this case glass.

This method was trialled by Gwinnett during an expedition to collect microplastic samples along the Hudson River in New York, USA, part of the Rozalia Project where it proved highly effective, with a mean fibre recovery rate of 96.4%. It also enables multiple analytical techniques to be applied to the samples afterwards and preserves them for future study.

Gwinnett continues, 'The ultimate goal is that this will become the standardised workflow for microplastics research across the world. At the moment, scientists are extrapolating data and it is only through constant monitoring that we will we truly know how much microplastic pollution is out there. If there is a standardised method to globally track microplastics then we can much better understand the risks and where we should be targeting our efforts for mitigation. We know plastic pollution is widespread, but we need to understand how much is in different locations, where it has come from and where it is going. What we need is a global collaborative effort to gather that large-scale data.'

The tape is already being employed more widely and was used to collect microplastic samples during a transatlantic sailing expedition on former racing vessel the SV Jolokia last year. The Marine Education Centre based in New York State, USA, is also training 'citizen scientists' to take samples from the Hudson River and other locations using the tape. Staffordshire University is now collaborating with the University of Oxford, UK and Nekton Mission to analyse microplastic samples from an expedition to the Antarctic where these particulates will be retrieved from ice cores using the tape.

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