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UF Experts Lead the Charge with Microplastic Awareness Month

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The presentation to the high school students always starts with the same question: How many of you have heard of microplastic pollution?

Abbey Tyrna, a University of Florida/IFAS Extension water resources agent in Sarasota County, is one of several UF/IFAS Extension agents statewide who lead outreach efforts on behalf of the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project (FMAP). This program aims to educate on the prevalence of microplastics, reaching everyone from K-12 students to government officials to the general public. Each September, it also promotes outreach throughout the state for Microplastic Awareness Month.

The first year she asked the question, 2016, maybe one hand was raised, she said. The last time she asked it in 2019, though, nearly every hand was in the air.

“Even though the students are now more aware of the term ‘microplastics,’ they still can’t really define it,” Tyrna said. “What I do as part of the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project is explain the sources of microplastics and allow the students to see them first-hand. They collect samples and filter them as part of a citizen science project and come up with some real results.”

Tyrna said most students can cite single-use plastics – straws, grocery bags, drink bottles – as one source of microplastics after breaking down, but few are aware, for example, that synthetic fibers, like those that separate from polyester or nylon fabrics during the laundry process, are another source.

Tyrna’s outreach to local high schools draws from the program set up in 2015 by Maia McGuire, a UF/IFAS Extension Florida Sea Grant agent based in Flagler County. The affiliated website includes resources like K-12 curricula, sampling techniques and how to get in touch with a representative in your area for volunteer opportunities.

“It’s impossible to pinpoint if awareness of microplastic pollution has grown because of this program or other sources, but it definitely has,” McGuire said. “I’ve seen volunteers that I’ve supervised become quite passionate about it, and it has led to them setting up opportunities for me to come and speak to some organization they belong to. They want more people to learn about the issue once they become aware of it.”

One tracking method McGuire does have is a pledge for signees to commit to reduce their personal plastic use, available via the project’s website or promoted at occasional events where the project is being shared. McGuire said around 2,500 people have taken the pledge since the project began.

Another key component of the program involves citizen scientists collecting and reporting data that quantifies the extent of the pollution. Both Tyrna and McGuire emphasize the importance of this portion of the program, allowing people to visualize the pervasiveness of plastics in water bodies or shorelines near their homes.

“The citizen science data collection, in my mind, is the motivator to get people to change their behavior,” McGuire said. “If you go out and collect a water sample from the creek that runs behind your house and you analyze it and find out it has plastic in it, hopefully you become much more motivated to do some things that will help reduce the amount of plastic that’s ending up in the environment.”

One great way for people to participate in reducing the amount of waste that ends up in water bodies is to participate in a shoreline cleanup, said Savanna Barry, a regional specialized UF/IFAS Extension Florida Sea Grant agent based at the UF/IFAS Nature Coast Biological Station in Cedar Key, Florida. The International Coastal Cleanup, led by the Ocean Conservancy, is held the third Saturday of September (this year Sept. 21) in more than 100 countries.

“It’s easy to tell people the obvious, ‘Don’t throw trash on the ground,’” said Barry, who is one of the organizers of the cleanup event hosted in Cedar Key. “Actually seeing the amount of macroplastics collected gives people a sense of the problem and can shine a light on real changes people can make. It’s a great tool for that.”

Barry said the event continues to grow each year, attracting at least 200 volunteers, including some University of Florida student groups who travel from the Gainesville campus.

“The International Coastal Cleanup events are different from your average cleanup because the volunteers bring all the trash back to a central location, and then everything is dumped back out, counted and quantified,” Barry explained. “We actually get data that determines the type and quantity of trash collected, and then that data is reported to the Ocean Conservancy. Each year, plastics make up a majority of the top 10 items collected worldwide.”

According to McGuire, reducing plastic pollution can start with a small, individual choice.

“The bottom-line point that I try to get across is that anything an individual can do to reduce the amount of plastic waste they generate can make a difference,” McGuire said. “I try to diffuse that, ‘I’m only one person; what can I do?’ attitude and remind people that if you make one change, it’s going to magnify. If you tell a friend, and everybody you tell shares with someone else, there’s an exponential growth.”

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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 website at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.

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