UF/IFAS citizen scientists find microplastics have big presence in coastal waters

.UF/IFAS citizen scientists find microplastics have big presence in coastal waters

By: Samantha Grenrock, 352-294-3307, grenrosa@ufl.edu

Source: Maia McGuire, 386-437-7464, mpmcg@ufl.edu  

Each time you do a load of laundry you may inadvertently send tiny pieces of plastic to a nearby lake or ocean. This is  according to Maia McGuire, Florida Sea Grant agent with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension.

That’s because when we wash synthetic fabrics, such as rayon and spandex, plastic threads get washed out with the rinse cycle and sent to a wastewater treatment plant, McGuire said. These threads are a kind of microplastic called microfiber. Like all microplastic, microfibers are less than 5 millimeters in size—less than the width of a pencil eraser. Because they are so small, microfibers pass through many filters used in treatment plants. Then they end up in lakes and oceans.

A little over a year ago, McGuire began the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, a citizen science project that has trained volunteers throughout Florida to gather data about microplastics in coastal waters. So far, volunteers have collected and analyzed 770 water samples at 256 locations, McGuire said.

These citizen scientists found an average of eight piece of plastic per sample. 82 percent of plastic found was microfiber, McGuire said.

“When I started, I knew we would find plastics, and I thought we would find more plastic fragments and microbeads — plastic beads found in personal care products that have gotten a lot of attention lately as a source of plastic pollution,” McGuire said. “What surprised me was that microfibers were by far the most common type of microplastic we came across.”

While this finding about the relative abundance of microfibers is consistent with other studies done in the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean, this project demonstrates that microfibers aren’t just someone else’s problem, McGuire explained.
“I wanted to find a way to help people understand that this was a local issue and that there are things we can do as Floridians to help,” McGuire said.”

Like larger pieces of plastic, microplastic can affect marine life, McGuire said. Plastics tend to absorb toxins floating in the ocean.  Over time, high concentrations of these chemicals can build up on plastic surfaces, she said. Furthermore, some plastics are manufactured with substances that can harm to marine life. When animals ingest plastic, toxins can enter their bodies and may move up the food chain.

“The question now is what can be done within our municipal water systems to prevent microfibers from reaching water bodies in the first place,” McGuire said.

McGuire is now working to partner with wastewater treatment plants and faculty in the UF department of environmental engineering to find ways to filter out microfibers from waste water.

The Florida Microplastics Awareness Project also works to promote lifestyle changes that help keep plastic out of oceans and waterways. So far, 900 people have pledged to make various behavior changes to reduce how much plastic gets into the ocean, McGuire reported.

“With a problem like this — a global problem — it’s easy to get discouraged and wonder, what can I do about that?” McGuire said. “My answer is, making small changes means that at least one piece of plastic didn’t end up in the ocean. For instance, if you pledge to stop using plastic straws at restaurants, and you go out to eat once a week, that’s 52 straws per year. Making that small change is better than no change at all,” McGuire said.

Learn more about the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project and how to get involved at plasticaware.org. FMAP was funded by a 2015 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program.



The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.




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