From Source to Solutions: The Significance of Microplastic Characterization Data


To understand how microplastics break down, move through the oceans and freshwater systems and collect on coastlines, researchers and community monitoring groups must be able to quantify a robust set of particle size parameters. Understanding microplastic characterization data helps to identify plastic pollution sources and solutions.


Microplastics, plastic particles 5 mm and smaller, have diverse physical properties, and their characteristics provide clues about where they came from. For example, microplastics from car tires may have different characteristics compared to those from synthetic clothing fibres or microbeads in cosmetics. Microplastic characterization data helps to identify plastic pollution sources and solutions.


Discover which distinct data points researchers and community scientists collect below:



  • ​Circularity helps classify microplastics into categories like film, line/fibre, fragment, foam or pellet. For example, while a fragment and a circular pellet (or "nurdle") could appear similar to the human eye, circularity is a reliable method to distinguish between the two.

  • Understanding microplastics’ circularity can provide valuable insights into their source. For example, circular microplastics are often associated with sources such as plastic pellets from industrial processes, while highly non-circular plastics like lines can indicate a different source like clothing fibres, pieces of fishing nets and ropes.

  • Circularity may also affect microplastics’ interactions with other environmental factors, such as currents, sediment and animal ingestion. For example, circular microplastics may be more likely to accumulate in certain areas or be ingested by certain marine animals as they mimic naturally occurring food.



  • Colour can provide valuable information about potential sources of microplastics. Certain colours can be associated with specific types of plastic products.

  • Colour can also play a role in whether microplastics are ingested or mistaken for prey if the color mimics an organism that an animal is accustomed to searching for and eating.


Surface Area, Perimeter and Diameter


  • The surface area and perimeter of microplastics can affect microplastics’ behaviour and potential impact on the environment. For example, the larger the surface area or perimeter, the more opportunity there is for biofilms to adhere to the microplastics. Biofilms are a collection of microorganisms, such as bacteria, that adhere to surfaces and create a slimy layer and can introduce harmful bacteria into an environment or animal that eats it.

  • The surface area can also impact the buoyancy of microplastics, which can influence their distribution in the environment and their likelihood of being ingested by animals. This information can be coupled with information on the type of plastic (or the polymer type). To determine the type of plastic, scientists use a technique called spectroscopy which is the study of light and matter. Certain low-density plastics with a larger surface area are more likely to float, while high-density plastics with a smaller surface area may sink.


Length and Width


  • Microplastics’ length and width accurately describe what was sampled. It is important to specify the size threshold being used since, depending on the methods used, smaller particles can pass through sieves or nets.

  • Size information is needed to determine how microplastics behave in different environments. It can impact their likelihood of being ingested by various animals, their buoyancy and other properties that determine how these plastics move in the environment.


Collecting data like circularity, colour, surface area and length is crucial to identify microplastic sources and behaviours in the environment, but collecting this data is time-consuming. The Saturna Imaging System is a game-changing tool that automates microplastic analysis so researchers can rapidly receive standardized microplastics data.


In a single click, the Saturna Imaging System collects 13 distinct data points (like those listed above) for every microplastic imaged. It can be used by researchers and community scientists for manta trawls, ingestion and beach studies. By obtaining this high-quality data, scientists can identify solutions to help tackle microplastic pollution at the source.


Ocean Diagnostics Inc. (ODI) is a Victoria, B.C.-based environmental impact company that diagnoses and protects our planet from the threats of plastic pollution and biodiversity loss. Through innovative technology, cutting-edge laboratory capabilities and collaborative partnerships, ODI enables scientists and the public to collect the data needed to influence local and global solutions.