The purpose of this study was to identify a method to accurately separate small microplastics (<100 μm) from soil and sediment. We initially conducted spike-and-recovery tests using polyethylene microbeads and density separation and found that the recovery rate of microplastic particles smaller than 100 μm was less than 60%. This result suggested that previous reports have underestimated the concentrations of microplastics smaller than 100 μm in soil. When polyvinyl pyrrolidone was added and dispersed in a heavy liquid, the recovery rate exceeded 90%, regardless of the microplastic particle size. This improved recovery rate was independent of the type of polymer (polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyethylene terephthalate, or nylon 6) and the physicochemical properties of the soil (Andisols, Entisols, or Ultisols), and the method was also effective for marine and lake sediments. Using this method, we measured microplastic concentrations in paddy soil. The results showed that the most common particle size, 20–100 μm, accounted for 64% of all microplastics. Accurate separation from the soil of fractions smaller than 100 μm, which account for the majority of microplastics in soil, will enable an accurate assessment of the impact of microplastics on the soil ecosystem. The method identified in this study can serve as the basic technique for achieving that goal.
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