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Plastic Pollution Measurement Science


Plastics have undoubtedly brought numerous benefits to society, but the issue of plastic pollution has emerged as a significant global environmental challenge. Plastic pollution in the marine environment has become pervasive and highly visible, endangering wildlife and ecosystems. To address this pressing issue, the quantities, types, sources, impacts, and potential solutions related to plastic pollution must be understood. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is at the forefront of plastic pollution measurement science, working to develop innovative methods and technologies for analyzing plastic waste in the environment. NIST is a global leader in the field of plastic pollution measurement, and provides essential tools and resources for researchers, policymakers, industry stakeholders, and the general public.


Plastic pollution is a complex mixture of various types of plastics with different shapes and chemical additives.  From microscopic nanoplastics (as small as 1 nm) to large megaplastics (over 1 m), plastic pollution poses significant measurement science challenges. By developing accurate methods for identifying and quantifying plastic particles, researchers can better understand the sources, transport, fate, and impacts of plastic pollution in different environmental compartments. This information is essential for developing targeted solutions, such as source reduction and recycling initiatives, to mitigate the effects of plastic pollution on ecosystems and human health

Graphic of a globe where the land is light green and the water is light blue. In the Atlantic Ocean portion, there is a graphic overlay representing the breakdown of megaplastics to nanoplastics. Black text wraps around the globe. “Plastic Pollution Measurement Science” around the top, and “sources, transport, fate, quantities, impacts, repurposing” around the bottom
Credit: K.Shaw/NIST
Photograph of plastic debris consisting of large and small fragments with a variety of shapes and colors.
Plastic marine debris from a windward beach of the Main Hawaiian Islands catalogued and awaiting polymer identification.
Credit: NIST

Programs and Projects

Research efforts within the Biochemical and Exposure Science Group (BESG) are focused on the development of new methods and technologies for identifying and quantifying plastic particles in environmental samples.  These activities provide crucial data for assessing the scope and impact of plastic pollution on ecosystems and human health. The BESG provides methods through technology transfer to university and governmental researchers and students. 


Microplastic pollution
Microplastic pollution at the high tide line of a windward beach in the Main Hawaiian Islands.
Credit: Susan Paulson
Photograph of an analytical instrument and a computer monitor displaying an FT-IR spectrum.
Attenuated Total Reflectance Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (ATR FT-IR) commonly used to identify polymers of plastic marine debris.
Credit: NIST

Much of the work described here is occurring in Hawaii at CMDR with strong connections to the extensive resources and expertise at other NIST locations in Gaithersburg, Maryland and Charleston, South Carolina. 

To learn more about the projects of HPU scientists and students, visit Hawaii Pacific University Center for Marine Debris Research

Related NIST projects


1.  Seeley, M. E., Hale, R. C., Zwollo, P., Vogelbein, W., Verry, G., and Wargo, A. R., "Microplastics exacerbate virus-mediated mortality in fish," Science of the Total Environment, 866, (2023). 

2.  Seeley, M. E. and Lynch, J. M., "Previous successes and untapped potential of pyrolysis-GC/MS for the analysis of plastic pollution," Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, (2023). 

3.  Kotula, A. P., Orski, S. V., Brignac, K. C., Lynch, J. M., and Heilala, B. M. J., "Time-gated Raman spectroscopy of recovered plastics," Marine Pollution Bulletin, 181, (2022). 

4.  Petersen, E. J., Barrios, A. C., Henry, T. B., Johnson, M. E., Koelmans, A. A., Bustos, A. R. M., Matheson, J., Roesslein, M., Zhao, J., and Xing, B. S., "Potential Artifacts and Control Experiments in Toxicity Tests of Nanoplastic and Microplastic Particles," Environ. Sci. Technol., 56, 15192-15206 (2022). 

5.  Savoca, M. S., Kuhn, S., Sun, C. J., Avery-Gomm, S., Choy, C. A., Dudas, S., Hong, S. H., Hyrenbach, K. D., Li, T. H., Ng, C. K. Y., Provencher, J. F., and Lynch, J. M., "Towards a North Pacific Ocean long-term monitoring program for plastic pollution: A review and recommendations for plastic ingestion bioindicators," Environmental Pollution, 310, (2022). 

6.  Zangmeister, C. D., Radney, J. G., Benkstein, K. D., and Kalanyan, B., "Common Single-Use Consumer Plastic Products Release Trillions ofSub-100 nm Nanoparticles per Liter into Water during Normal Use," Environ. Sci. Technol., 56, 5448-5455 (2022). 

7.  Cowger, W., Steinmetz, Z., Gray, A., Munno, K., Lynch, J., Hapich, H., Primpke, S., De Frond, H., Rochman, C., and Herodotou, O., "Microplastic Spectral Classification Needs an Open Source Community: Open Specy to the Rescue!," Analytical Chemistry, 93, 7543-7548 (2021). 

8.  Hyrenbach, K. D., McGinnis, Z., Page, K., Rapp, D., Horgen, F. D., and Lynch, J. M., "Assessment of plastic ingestion by pole-caught pelagic predatory fish from O'ahu, Hawai'i," Aquatic Conservation-Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 31, 408-419 (2021). 

9.  Cowger, W., Booth, A. M., Hamilton, B. M., Thaysen, C., Primpke, S., Munno, K., Lusher, A. L., Dehaut, A., Vaz, V. P., Liboiron, M., Devriese, L. I., Hermabessiere, L., Rochman, C., Athey, S. N., Lynch, J. M., De Frond, H., Gray, A., Jones, O. A. H., Brander, S., Steele, C., Moore, S., Sanchez, A., and Nel, H., "Reporting Guidelines to Increase the Reproducibility and Comparability of Research on Microplastics," Applied Spectroscopy, 74, 1066-1077 (2020). 

10.  Brignac, K. C., Jung, M. R., King, C., Royer, S. J., Blickley, L., Lamson, M. R., Potemra, J. T., and Lynch, J. M., "Marine Debris Polymers on Main Hawaiian Island Beaches, Sea Surface, and Seafloor," Environ. Sci. Technol., 53, 12218-12226 (2019). 

11.  Currie, J. J., Stack, S. H., Brignac, K. C., and Lynch, J. M., "Nearshore sea surface macro marine debris in Maui County, Hawaii: Distribution, drivers, and polymer composition," Marine Pollution Bulletin, 138, 70-83 (2019). 

12.  Gove, J. M., Whitney, J. L., McManus, M. A., Lecky, J., Carvalho, F. C., Lynch, J. M., Li, J. W., Neubauer, P., Smith, K. A., Phipps, J. E., Kobayashi, D. R., Balagso, K. B., Contreras, E. A., Manuel, M. E., Merrifield, M. A., Polovina, J. J., Asner, G. P., Maynard, J. A., and Williams, G. J., "Prey-size plastics are invading larval fish nurseries," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116, 24143-24149 (2019). 

13.  Clukey, K. E., Lepczyk, C. A., Balazs, G. H., Work, T. M., Li, Q. X., Bachman, M. J., and Lynch, J. M., "Persistent organic pollutants in fat of three species of Pacific pelagic longline caught sea turtles: Accumulation in relation to ingested plastic marine debris," Science of the Total Environment, 610, 402-411 (2018). 

14.  Jung, M. R., Horgen, F. D., Orski, S. V., Rodriguez, C. V., Beers, K. L., Balazs, G. H., Jones, T. T., Work, T. M., Brignac, K. C., Royer, S. J., Hyrenbach, K. D., Jensen, B. A., and Lynch, J. M., "Validation of ATR FT-IR to identify polymers of plastic marine debris, including those ingested by marine organisms," Marine Pollution Bulletin, 127, 704-716 (2018). 

15.  Jung, M. R., Balazs, G. H., Work, T. M., Jones, T. T., Orski, S. V., Rodriguez, C. V., Beers, K. L., Brignac, K. C., Hyrenbach, K. D., Jensen, B. A., and Lynch, J. M., "Polymer Identification of Plastic Debris Ingested by Pelagic-Phase Sea Turtles in the Central Pacific," Environ. Sci. Technol., 52, 11535-11544 (2018). 

16.  Jennifer M. Lynch. “Quantities of Marine Debris Ingested by Sea Turtles: Global Meta-Analysis Highlights Need for Standardized Data Reporting Methods and Reveals Relative Risk.” Environ.Sci.Technol. 52 (21):12026-12038, 2018. 

17.  Clukey, K. E., Lepczyk, C. A., Balazs, G. H., Work, T. M., and Lynch, J. M., "Investigation of plastic debris ingestion by four species of sea turtles collected as bycatch in pelagic Pacific longline fisheries," Marine Pollution Bulletin, 120, 117-125 (2017).

Created January 23, 2020, Updated May 15, 2024