Florida Sea Grant agent launches program to assess microplastic in state’s coastal waters

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As a Florida Sea Grant  agent with the University of Florida’s Extension program, Maia McGuire has spent years educating Floridians about how plastic garbage can kill large animals such as turtles and sea birds if they eat discarded plastic items or become ensnared by them.

Now, McGuire is trying to raise awareness about microplastic, a much smaller form of seaborne garbage that threatens much smaller marine animals. Measuring 5 millimeters or less, smaller than the width of a pencil eraser, these fragments end up in coastal waters when large plastic items such as food packages break apart, or small particles such as plastic microbeads from personal-care products are washed out to sea.

To raise awareness about microplastic among Floridians, McGuire and a team of colleagues have just launched the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, or FMAP, a one-year project funded by a $17,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program. The FMAP program aims to use a vigorous citizen-science training effort to draw attention to the problem and educate citizens on ways of reducing their potential contributions of microplastic to the environment.

One important facet of the project’s citizen-science effort is an informal microplastic assessment that will be conducted at 200 to 300 sites along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Volunteers will take water samples, then filter and analyze the samples to determine how much microplastic is present. The results will be posted on a Google Maps database, accessible through the FMAP website, http://www.plasticaware.org.

Other aspects of FMAP will include news stories and outreach at live events. Visitors to the FMAP website can answer a survey about their current and future efforts to cut back on activities that may generate microplastic pollution.

Few scientific studies have investigated the impacts of microplastic, but currently available evidence suggests these particles are common in the world’s oceans and that tiny, foraging sea creatures sometimes consume them.

“We’re learning that microplastic might affect the base of the food chain, which is cause for concern,” said McGuire, who’s based at the UF/IFAS Extension Flagler County office, part of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“We know that birds and fish can starve to death from consuming large pieces of plastic they mistake for food, but it’s indigestible — it fills their stomachs but doesn’t contribute any nutrients,” she said. “One fear is that this same thing could happen when microscopic invertebrates such as plankton eat microplastic. Scientists also do not know whether the plastic will get transferred up the food chain to animals that eat the plankton.”

Scientists are also concerned that microplastic may poison the tiny animals. It’s known that common plastic additives such as bisphenol A can leach from plastic over time. More disturbingly, it’s believed that some toxic chemicals floating freely in the sea could bond to the surface of microplastic particles and become concentrated there, remaining indefinitely.

Furthermore, if microplastic particles are present in the digestive systems of microscopic organisms that are eaten by larger animals, the microplastic might gradually make its way up the food chain, possibly threatening the health of many species, McGuire said.

Microplastic is generated in several ways. Polyethylene microbeads used in toothpastes, facial scrubs and other personal-care products are one source, because many water-treatment facilities are unable to filter them out. Synthetic microfibers used in garments can break loose during washing and may be small enough to escape water-treatment filters, thus ending up in wastewater effluent. For plastic garbage at sea, wave action and sunlight can weaken large items and break them into ever-smaller fragments. Some microplastic material is dust from construction or industrial processes that’s carried to the ocean by wind or water.

All of these tiny plastic particles wouldn’t be such a problem if they quickly broke down into simpler chemical forms, but plastic molecules are very resilient and could remain intact to threaten the environment for thousands of years, she said.

“We as people have to think very carefully when we purchase products and when we dispose of products,” McGuire said. “Recycle plastics instead of throwing them away, and try to avoid using disposable plastic items like drinking straws, single-use water bottles, plastic bags or any personal-care products that list polyethylene as an ingredient. If we change our behavior a bit, we can reduce the amount of plastic that makes it to the ocean.

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Contacts

Writer: Tom Nordlie, 352-273-3567, tnordlie@ufl.edu

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