Plastics — Environmental aspects — State of knowledge and methodologies
This document summarizes current scientific literature on the occurrence of macroplastics and microplastics, in the environment and biota. It gives an overview of testing methods, including sampling from various environmental matrix, sample preparation and analysis. Further, chemical and physical testing methods for the identification and quantification of plastics are described. This document gives recommendations for three steps necessary for the standardization of methods towards harmonized procedures for sampling, sample preparation and analysis. This document does not apply indoor and health related aspects. NOTE The collection of plastics or microplastics in the environment by citizen social monitoring projects is not in the scope of this document. Although such projects can help sensitize the society to environmental problems and can even reduce the entry and presence of plastics in the environment, this monitoring concept is not considered suitable for a robustly representative and scientific analysis of microplastics in the environment via standardization.
Plastiques — Aspects liés à l'environnement — État des connaissances et méthodologies
Standards Content (Sample)
Plastics — Environmental aspects —
State of knowledge and methodologies
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1 Scope . 1
2 Normative references . 1
3 Terms and definitions . 1
4 End-use applications of plastic materials and its relevance to the environment .4
4.1 General . 4
4.2 Packaging . 8
4.3 Building and construction . 9
4.4 Mobility and transportation, electrical and electronics . 9
4.5 Agriculture . 9
5 Occurrence of plastics in environmental matrix and biota .10
5.1 General .10
5.2 Water systems .10
5.2.1 Marine waters .10
5.2.2 Fresh waters .11
5.3 Sediments .11
5.3.1 Marine sediments . . .11
5.3.2 Fresh water sediments .12
5.4 Sludge .12
5.5 Soils .13
5.5.1 Terrestrial systems.13
5.5.2 Beaches .13
5.6 Air .14
5.7 Terrestrial fresh water and marine biota .14
6 Testing methods .15
6.1 General .15
6.2 Sampling .15
6.2.2 Water (aquatic systems) .16
6.2.3 Sediment, sludge and soil (solid systems) .17
6.2.4 Air .18
6.2.5 Biota .18
6.2.6 Statistical considerations for sampling .19
6.3 Sample preparation .19
6.3.2 Physical preparation methods .20
6.3.3 Chemical preparation methods .21
6.3.4 Enzymatic preparation .21
6.4.2 Spectroscopic analysis methods .22
6.4.3 Thermo-analytic methods .23
6.4.4 Chemical extraction methods .23
7 Methodology of entry pathways (Monitoring) .25
8 Basics of environmental assessments .27
9 Recommendations for the development of standards .28
© ISO 2020 – All rights reserved iii
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ISO (the International Organization for Standardization) is a worldwide federation of national standards
bodies (ISO member bodies). The work of preparing International Standards is normally carried out
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The procedures used to develop this document and those intended for its further maintenance are
described in the ISO/IEC Directives, Part 1. In particular, the different approval criteria needed for the
different types of ISO documents should be noted. This document was drafted in accordance with the
editorial rules of the ISO/IEC Directives, Part 2 (see www .iso .org/ directives).
Attention is drawn to the possibility that some of the elements of this document may be the subject of
patent rights. ISO shall not be held responsible for identifying any or all such patent rights. Details of
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on the ISO list of patent declarations received (see www .iso .org/ patents).
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iso/ foreword .html.
This document was prepared by Technical Committee ISO/TC 61, Plastics, Subcommittee SC 14,
Environmental aspects, in collaboration with the European Committee for Standardization (CEN)
Technical Committee CEN/TC 249, Plastics, in accordance with the Agreement on technical cooperation
between ISO and CEN (Vienna Agreement).
Any feedback or questions on this document should be directed to the user’s national standards body. A
complete listing of these bodies can be found at www .iso .org/ members .html.
iv © ISO 2020 – All rights reserved
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Plastics materials are highly flexible and universally applicable. They can be found in a diversity of
product areas and application sectors. In order to achieve a sustainable management and exploitation
of products, safe and efficient manufacturing processes are compulsory within the value chain. In
addition, an environmentally friendly use and handling across diverse applications is necessary during
consumption, reuse and disposal. This ensures that an effective and qualified management at the
product’s end-of-life is addressed through proper performed procedures and evaluations.
If mismanagement happens at any of the above described life cycle stages, the use of plastics and
plastics-containing products can create adverse effects to the environment. It has been proven, not
least by the United Nations Environment Programme, that discarded products as well as microplastics
are found in the environment around the globe, be it on land or water bodies including the sea. There
are diverse causes for this such as inappropriate or inefficient waste management infrastructures,
improper management of plastics products and their waste reuse or disposal, inefficient wastewater
management, etc. Therefore, various types of entries into the environment and diverse constitutions
and compositions of the microplastic particles in the environment are to be considered. Littered
articles as well as microplastics consists of different kinds of products and come from different waste,
e.g. bottles, films, fishing nets, tyres, cosmetics, clothing fibres, etc.
Over extended time in the environment, plastics products and their waste will breakdown into smaller
items and finally disintegrate to microparticles. Microplastics also enter the environment directly
through its intentional use in some product applications. Microparticles, be it via primary product use
or via secondary fragmentation of macro articles, should be considered with special care since they can
give rise to adverse environmental impact especially in the aquatic environment and its biota.
This document with its primary focus on plastics, rather than all the other materials, in the environment
intends to provide a survey on the international situation of plastics and plastics in the environment
with special attention to microplastics in the marine environment, its detection and determination.
For this purpose, the document describes the state-of-the art testing methods as well as assessment
Although this document gives a representative overview of the current knowledge (up to early 2017)
and activities about plastics and microplastics around the world, information is predominately
generated from the Northern Hemisphere and activities in Europe and North America.
In this way, the document can be recognized as a contribution towards harmonized procedures and
measures in order to provide a sound basis for a reliable and verifiable evaluation of the impact of
plastics and microplastic in the environment. The document covers the following key items of interest.
— Status of plastics products and plastics in the environment: Facts about plastics use and proven
findings about the occurrence of plastics and microplastics in the environmental matrix, be it on
land and water bodies including the sea.
— Terminology: The terms “plastic particles”, “plastic microparticles”, “microplastics”, “plastic
nanoparticles” or “solid microparticle” are currently not defined in a consistent way and are,
especially in an international context, being used differently. This document makes an attempt
towards a globally harmonized terminology.
— Test methods: Methods for the detection, analysis and assessment of plastic particles present in the
environment, such as aquatic litter, are neither harmonized nor standardized. Simple visual tests, in
particular, have proved to be insufficient. This document will describe the sampling, its preparation
of samples and further analytics, especially in waters as the main task of this document, since
reproducible and verifiable procedures are indispensable to derive valid data for the environmental
assessment and on this basis concluding appropriate measures to improve the environmental
Not only has the plastics economy recognized the importance of this topic and started diverse action
programmes, which are, for example, compiled through the Global Plastics Declaration Initiative,
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also political groups (e.g. G 7 and G 20), international organisations such as OECD, administrations of
regions and individual countries are increasingly taking care about the serious issue of littered plastic
waste and microparticles in the environment. In addition, numerous research activities have also been
initiated. All these key stakeholders will highly benefit from a globally harmonized procedure.
This document includes references to studies and investigations in relation with plastics in the
environmental matrix and biota, including microplastics. Important is the chapter terms and
definitions. It presents the basis for future work in ISO. The description of the size classes is particularly
relevant. Reference is made to other classifications of other organizations, for example in the area
of Nanoparticles (see also OECD). The references selected within this document reflect the current
knowledge without claiming to be complete or fully up-to-date. The content and conclusions of the
different studies referenced in the bibliography are under the responsibility of their authors.
NOTE The document was developed under the scope of ISO/TC 61 Plastics and follows resulting requirements.
Independent from these, terms are used in the text, which are in the scope of other ISO/TCs, such as:
— ISO/TC 38, Textiles;
— ISO/TC 45, Rubber and rubber products;
— ISO/TC 217, Cosmetics
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TECHNICAL REPORT ISO/TR 21960:2020(E)
Plastics — Environmental aspects — State of knowledge
This document summarizes current scientific literature on the occurrence of macroplastics and
microplastics, in the environment and biota. It gives an overview of testing methods, including sampling
from various environmental matrix, sample preparation and analysis. Further, chemical and physical
testing methods for the identification and quantification of plastics are described.
This document gives recommendations for three steps necessary for the standardization of methods
towards harmonized procedures for sampling, sample preparation and analysis.
This document does not apply indoor and health related aspects.
NOTE The collection of plastics or microplastics in the environment by citizen social monitoring projects
is not in the scope of this document. Although such projects can help sensitize the society to environmental
problems and can even reduce the entry and presence of plastics in the environment, this monitoring concept is
not considered suitable for a robustly representative and scientific analysis of microplastics in the environment
2 Normative references
There are no normative references in this document.
3 Terms and definitions
For the purposes of this document, the following terms and definitions apply. ISO and IEC maintain
terminological databases for use in standardization at the following addresses:
— ISO Online browsing platform: available at https:// www .iso .org/ obp
— IEC Electropedia: available at http:// www .electropedia .org/
chemical compound or mixture of compounds consisting of repeating structural units created through
Note 1 to entry: In practice above 10 000 Dalton.
Note 2 to entry: Polymers comprise both plastics and elastomers. The latter is excluded from the scope of
material which contains as an essential ingredient a high polymer (3.1) and which, at some stage in its
processing into finished products, can be shaped by flow
Note 1 to entry: Plastics consists mainly polymers and minor contents of additives (3.7).
Note 2 to entry: Supplementary to the term “plastic”, “plastic product” is also used. According to ISO 472, a plastic
product represents “any material or combination of materials, semi-finished or finished product that is within
the scope of ISO/TC 61, Plastics”.
Note 3 to entry: Plastics comprise both thermoplastic (3.3) and thermoset (3.4) materials.
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[SOURCE: ISO 472:2013, 2.702, modified — Notes to entry have been replaced.]
plastic (3.1) that has thermoplastic properties
[SOURCE: ISO 472:2013, 2.1178]
plastic (3.1) which, when cured by heat or other means, changes into a substantially infusible and
[SOURCE: ISO 472:2013, 2.1181]
macromolecular material which returns rapidly to its initial dimensions and shape after substantial
deformation by a weak stress and release of the stress
Note 1 to entry: The definition applies under room temperature test conditions.
[SOURCE: ISO 472:2013, 2.327]
solid product consisting of two or more layers (often in a symmetrical assembly) of, for instance, plastic
film or sheet, normal or syntactic cellular plastic, metal, wood or a composite with or without adhesive
[SOURCE: ISO 472:2013, 2.182.2, modified — The example has been omitted.]
chemicals added to polymers (3.1) to improve/change the individual properties of the specific plastic
Note 1 to entry: Important additives such as fillers/reinforced materials, softeners and flame retardants are
referenced according to ISO 1043-2 to ISO 1043-4.
any solid plastic particle or object insoluble in water with any dimension above 5 mm
Note 1 to entry: Typically, a macroplastic object represents an article consisting of plastic or a part of an end-user
product or a fragment of the respective article, such as cups, cup covers.
Note 2 to entry: The defined dimension is related to the longest distance of the particle.
any solid plastic particle insoluble in water with any dimension between 1 µm and 1 000 µm (=1 mm)
Note 1 to entry: This term relates to plastic materials within the scope of ISO/TC 61. Rubber, fibres, cosmetic
means, etc. are not within the scope.
Note 2 to entry: Typically, a microplastic object represents a particle intentionally added to end-user products,
such as cosmetic means, coatings, paints, etc. A microplastic object can also result as a fragment of the respective
Note 3 to entry: Microplastics may show various shapes.
Note 4 to entry: The defined dimension is related to the longest distance of the particle.
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any solid plastic particle insoluble in water with any dimension between 1 mm and 5 mm
Note 1 to entry: Microplastics (3.9) may show various shapes.
Note 2 to entry: Typically, a large microplastic object represents an article consisting of plastic or a part of an
end-user product or a fragment of the respective article.
Note 3 to entry: Microplastics in this size range are, for example, plastic pellets as intermediates for further
down-stream processing such as moulding, extrusion, etc. resulting to semi-finished products which are not
final end-user products.
solid particle insoluble in water in the dimension between 1 µm and 1 000 µm (=1 mm)
Note 1 to entry: There is currently no specific distinction between nanoparticles and microparticles.
solid particle not soluble in water in the dimension above 5 mm
plastic particles smaller than 1 µm
Note 1 to entry: According to OECD nanoparticles are up to 100 nm.
solid object disposed of or abandoned in the environment (3.17)
litter (3.14) found in the marine or coastal environment (3.17)
any material or object which the holder discards, or intends to discard, or is required to discard
[SOURCE: ISO 15270, 3.34]
conditions and surroundings that might influence the behaviour of an item or biotic life
Note 1 to entry: Environmental matrices are: water, air and soil.
Note 2 to entry: The relation to the environment within this document does not refer to environmental aspects
such as resource efficiency, energy consumption, climate protection, etc. rather this document focuses on the
relevance with respect to potential releases into the environment on land or sea.
[SOURCE: ISO 472:2013, 2.1310, modified — The definition has been edited to specify biotic life and
Notes to entry have been added.]
entirety of all irreversible chemical and physical processes occurring in a material in the course of time
Note 1 to entry: For testing purposes, ageing is often applied artificially.
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living organisms in the environment (3.17)
4 End-use applications of plastic materials and its relevance to the environment
Plastics are important materials in today’s modern life and play an integral role in both households
and industries. Over recent years, the consumption of plastic materials has significantly increased
and today they find diverse fields of areas of application such as packaging, building and construction,
automotive, electrical and electronic equipment, etc. Depending on the performance requirements of
the final end application, an article can contain plastics and/or composites.
The production of plastic materials is strictly regulated by legislative rules that translate into permit
requirements for materials production by the chemical and plastics industry according to the Industry
Emission Directive in Europe. In this way, emissions into air, water and soil can be well managed by
applying the best available technologies for polymer production according to legislative rules and
The plastics value chain can be described as follows. Plastic materials are mostly manufactured from
fossil raw materials like oil or gas and are mainly produced in the form of powders, flakes and pellets
(a preformed moulding material). This material may further be compounded before its use in moulding
and extrusion processes for its subsequent conversion into intermediate semi-finished products like
sheets, profiles, films, etc. These will be shaped into a variety of final articles in the household, buildings,
mobility sectors, etc. For the market relevant plastic materials used by the diverse application sectors,
see 4.2 to 4.5, the term "plastics" comprises thermoplastic materials and thermosets.
Figure 1 shows how in the industrial value chain the various steps of production, logistics and
distributions as well as entry pathways of plastics are distinguished.
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Yellow boxes: steps of the value chain
Grey boxes: logistics, distribution, trade, transfer
Green boxes: entry pathways
1 raw material producer
5 logistics on land
8 logistics on sea
9 drain from municipality
NOTE This figure is based on a graph of International Pellet Watch: www .tuat .ac .jp/ -gaia/ ipw/ en/ what .html
Figure 1 — Schematic illustration of the plastics value chain in the context within the
environment after a graph of international pellet watch
NOTE Figure 1 represents a highly simplified illustration of the industrial value chain, the logistics and
distribution as well as possible entry pathways into the environment. The reality is much more complex, thereby,
with further interim steps, interlinkages, dependences or possible further aspects.
Both legislation as well as standardization, especially quality and environmental management like
ISO 9000 group of standards and ISO 14000 group of standards, are in place and may be in principle
considered as appropriate means to minimize eventual losses for each production step as well as
logistics and distribution.
According to the European Market and Research Group of the European plastics manufacturers , the
total global production of plastic materials amounted to approx. 280 Mio tons in 2016 without other
plastics i.e. thermosets, elastomers, adhesives, coatings, sealants and fibres. Asia accounts for about
50 % of the world-wide production with China leading with 29 % of global production. European
production is less with 19 % and similar to NAFTA states (Canada, Mexico and the US) who have a sha