An untargeted thermogravimetric analysis-Fourier transform infrared-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry approach for plastic polymer identification

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Reliable chemical identification of specific polymers in environmental samples represents a major challenge in plastic research, especially with the wide range of commercial polymers available, along with variable additive mixtures. Thermogravimetric analysis-Fourier transform infrared-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (TGA-FTIR-GC-MS) offers a unique characterization platform that provides both physical and chemical properties of the analyzed polymers. This study presents a library of 11 polymers generated using virgin plastics and post-consumer products. TGA inflection points and mass of remaining residues following pyrolysis, in some cases, proved to be indicative of the polymer type. FTIR analysis of the evolved gas was able to differentiate between all but polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE). Finally, GC-MS was able to differentiate between the unique chemical fingerprints of all but one polymer in the library. This library was then used to characterize real environmental samples of mesoplastics collected from beaches in the U.K. and South Africa. Unambiguous identification of the polymer types was achieved, with PE being the most frequently detected polymer and with South African samples indicating variations that potentially resulted from aging and weathering.


Original languageEnglish
JournalEnvironmental Science & Technology
Early online date10 Jun 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 10 Jun 2021


  • mass spectrometry, thermogravimetric analysis, thermal analysis, pyrolysis, plastic, additives, plasticizers