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Sutton, R.; Lin, D.; Sedlak, M.; Box, C.; Gilbreath, A.; Holleman, R.; Miller, L.; Wong, A.; Munno, K.; Zhu, X.; et al. 2019. Understanding Microplastic Levels, Pathways, and Transport in the San Francisco Bay Region. SFEI Contribution No. 950. San Francisco Estuary Institute: Richmond, CA.

Microplastics (particles less than 5 mm) are ubiquitous and persistent pollutants in the ocean and a pervasive and preventable threat to the health of marine ecosystems. Microplastics come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and plastic types, each with unique physical and chemical properties and toxicological impacts. Understanding the magnitude of the microplastics problem and determining the highest priorities for mitigation require accurate measures of microplastic occurrence in the environment and identification of likely sources.

To develop critical baseline data and inform solutions, the San Francisco Estuary Institute and the 5 Gyres Institute have completed the first comprehensive regional study of microplastic pollution in a major estuary. This project supported multiple scientific components to develop improved knowledge about and characterization of microparticles and microplastics in San Francisco Bay and adjacent National Marine Sanctuaries, with the following objectives:

  1. Contribute to the development and standardization of sample collection and analysis methodology for microplastic transportation research.
  2. Determine a baseline for future monitoring of microplastics in San Francisco Bay surface water, sediment, and fish, and in ocean waters outside the Golden Gate.
  3. Characterize pathways by which microplastics enter the Bay, including urban stormwater and treated wastewater effluent.
  4. Investigate the contribution of Bay microplastics to the adjacent National Marine Sanctuaries through computer simulations.
  5. Communicate findings to regional stakeholders and the general public through meetings and educational materials.
  6. Facilitate evaluation of policy options for San Francisco Bay, with recommendations on source reduction.

This document presents the findings of this three-year project. A companion document, “San Francisco Bay Microplastics Project: Science-Supported Solutions and Policy Recommendations,” has been developed by 5 Gyres using the findings of this study (Box and Cummins, 2019).

 (4.95 MB) (66.14 MB)
Journal Article (Peer-Reviewed)
Rochman, C. M.; Munno, K.; Box, C.; Cummins, A.; Zhu, X.; Sutton, R. 2020. Think Global, Act Local: Local Knowledge Is Critical to Inform Positive Change When It Comes to Microplastics. Environmental Science & Technology . SFEI Contribution No. 1024.

Microplastic contamination in the marine environment is a global issue. Across the world, policies at the national and international level are needed to facilitate the scale of change needed to tackle this significant problem. However, sources and patterns of plastic contamination vary around the world, and the most pressing actions differ from one location to another. Therefore, local policies are a critical part of the solution; recognizing local sources will enable mitigations with measurable impacts. Here, we highlight how investigating the contamination comprehensively in one location can inform relevant mitigation strategies that can be transferred globally. We examine the San Francisco Bay in California, USA—the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas, and home to over 7 million people. The local contamination of microplastics in surface water, sediments, and fish from this urban bay is reportedly higher than many places studied to date.(1) This example demonstrates the value of local monitoring in identifying sources, informing local mitigation strategies and developing an array of solutions to stem the multifaceted tide of plastic pollution entering our global oceans.

Gilbreath, A.; McKee, L.; Shimabuku, I.; Lin, D.; Werbowski, L. M.; Zhu, X.; Grbic, J.; Rochman, C. 2019. Multi-year water quality performance and mass accumulation of PCBs, mercury, methylmercury, copper and microplastics in a bioretention rain garden. Journal of Sustainable Water in the Built Environment 5 (4) . SFEI Contribution No. 872.

A multiyear water quality performance study of a bioretention rain garden located along a major urban transit corridor east of San Francisco Bay was conducted to assess the efficacy of bioretention rain gardens to remove pollutants. Based on data collected in three years between 2012 and 2017, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and suspended sediment concentrations (SSCs) were reduced (>90%), whereas total mercury (Hg), methylmercury (MeHg), and copper (Cu) were moderately captured (37%, 49%, and 68% concentration reduction, respectively). Anthropogenic microparticles including microplastics were retained by the bioretention rain garden, decreasing in concentration from 1.6 particles/L to 0.16 particles/L. Based on subsampling at 50- and 150-mm intervals in soil cores from two areas of the unit, PCBs, Hg, and MeHg were all present at the highest concentrations in the upper 100 mm in the surface media layers. Based on residential screening concentrations, the surface media layer near the inlet would need to be removed and replaced annually, whereas the rest of the unit would need replacement every 8 years. The results of this study support the use of bioretention in the San Francisco Bay Area as one management option for meeting load reductions required by San Francisco Bay total maximum daily loads, and provide useful data for supporting decisions about media replacement and overall maintenance schedules.

 (627.7 KB) (4.92 MB)
Hung, C.; Klasios, N.; Zhu, X.; Sedlak, M.; Sutton, R. 2020. Methods Matter: Methods for Sampling Microplastic and Other Anthropogenic Particles and Their Implications for Monitoring and Ecological Risk Assessment. Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management 16 (6) . SFEI Contribution No. 1014.

To inform mitigation strategies and understand how microplastics affect wildlife, research is focused on understanding the sources, pathways, and occurrence of microplastics in the environment and in wildlife. Microplastics research entails counting and characterizing microplastics in nature, which is a labor‐intensive process, particularly given the range of particle sizes and morphologies present within this diverse class of contaminants. Thus, it is crucial to determine appropriate sampling methods that best capture the types and quantities of microplastics relevant to inform the questions and objectives at hand. It is also critical to follow protocols with strict quality assurance and quality control (QA/QC) measures so that results reflect accurate estimates of microplastic contamination. Here, we assess different sampling procedures and QA/QC strategies to inform best practices for future environmental monitoring and assessments of exposure. We compare microplastic abundance and characteristics in surface‐water samples collected using different methods (i.e., manta and bulk water) at the same sites, as well as duplicate samples for each method taken at the same site and approximate time. Samples were collected from 9 sampling sites within San Francisco Bay, California, USA, using 3 different sampling methods: 1) manta trawl (manta), 2) 1‐L grab (grab), and 3) 10‐L bulk water filtered in situ (pump). Bulk water sampling methods (both grab and pump) captured more microplastics within the smaller size range (<335 μm), most of which were fibers. Manta samples captured a greater diversity of morphologies but underestimated smaller‐sized particles. Inspection of pump samples revealed high numbers of particles from procedural contamination, stressing the need for robust QA/QC, including sampling and analyzing laboratory blanks, field blanks, and duplicates. Choosing the appropriate sampling method, combined with rigorous, standardized QA/QC practices, is essential for the future of microplastics research in marine and freshwater ecosystems.