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Citizen Scientists Gather Data About Microplastics in Coastal Waters
May 16, 2017

According to Maia McGuire, Florida Sea Grant agent with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension, every load of laundry that is washed has the potential to send tiny pieces of plastic to a nearby river or lake or ocean.

A volunteer collecting a water sample. The Florida Microplastic Awareness Project 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. Credit: Tyler Jones, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

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

With funding support provided by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program, Dr. McGuire began the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project (FMAP), a citizen science project that has trained volunteers throughout Florida to gather data about microplastics in coastal waters.

“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,” Dr. 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, Dr. McGuire explained.

Beyond mere aesthetics, the abundance of microplastics can negatively impact marine life because, just like larger pieces of plastic, they are prone to absorb a variety of toxins floating in the ocean. Consequently, when marine life ingest these plastics, the toxins are absorbed and may cause adverse impacts within the entire marine food chain.

Dr. McGuire noted that, “With a problem like this — a global problem — it’s easy to get discouraged and wonder, what can I do about that? My answer is, making small changes means that at least one piece of plastic didn’t end up in the ocean.”

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