Assessment methods on data quality and environmental variability are lacking for microplastics (MP). Here we assess occurrence and variability of MP number concentrations in two Dutch rivers. Strict QA/QC procedures were applied to identify MP using Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) microscopy followed by state of the art automated image analysis. For a series of randomly selected, yet ever smaller subareas of filters, we assessed how accurately MP numbers and polymer types are represented during partial filter analysis. Levels of uncertainty were acceptable when analysing 50% of a filter during chemical mapping, and when identifying at least a subset of 50 individual particles with attenuated total reflection (ATR)-FTIR. Applying these guidelines, MP number concentrations between 67 and 11532 MP m−3 were detected in Dutch riverine surface waters. Spatial differences caused MP number concentrations to vary by two orders of magnitude. Temporal differences were lower and induced a maximum variation of one order of magnitude. In total, 26 polymer types were identified, the most common were polyethylene (23%), polypropylene (19.7%) and ethylene propylene diene monomer rubber (18.3%). The highest diversity of polymer types was found for small MPs, whereas MP larger than 1 mm was scarce and almost exclusively made of polyethylene or polypropylene. Virtually all sampling locations revealed MP number concentrations that are considerably below known effect thresholds for anticipated adverse ecological effects.