Lara Milligan is a Natural Resources Agent with UF/IFAS Extension Pinellas County. Her work focuses on designing, developing, and evaluating educational programs to teach members of her community about the environment, from water resources to local wildlife. Milligan earned Bachelors and Master’s degrees from the University of Florida in Natural Resource Conservation with a focus on environmental education. Her work as a Natural Resources Agent supports two main initiatives of UF/IFAS Extension including: Enhancing and conserving Florida’s natural resources and environmental quality, and enhancing and protecting water quality, quantity and supply.
By Lara Milligan
Natural Resource Agent, UF/IFAS Extension Pinellas County
PIE Center research shows that people care about water, even more so than the economy, but other research shows that many people also don’t know a whole lot about water. For example, a study done by Tampa Bay Water revealed that 50% of 400 citizens served by the utility didn’t know the source of their drinking water. That’s understandable because in today’s fast-paced, jam-packed world, who has time to learn about water? We are incredibly busy people and water is an incredibly complex and dynamic topic. If you take the initiative to learn more about water it’s easy to encounter “the more I know, the less I know” problem that can be overwhelming.
A sign at my office reads “Water connects us all.” This is true, but the water that connects us all is also being impacted in a variety of ways by our daily activities. We all contribute to water quality issues, some more than others, and some in ways we might not even know. I won’t go into detail about all of the water quality problems we face in Florida, but I would like to focus on a relatively new issue that is just now making its way to the headlines: plastic.
There’s no escaping it. Just take a minute to look around the room or space you are in as you read this. Plastics have been around since the late 19th century, but weren’t heavily produced until World War II. Plastics have their perks. For example, they are incredibly durable, inexpensive, and quite useful which is why they are still around. The problem is they aren’t going anywhere. Dr. Anthony Andrady, a chemist with the US-based Research Triangle Institute, is quoted as saying “every little piece of plastic manufactured in the past 50 years that made it into the ocean is still out there somewhere.” I would go on to say only in smaller and smaller pieces.
Plastic particles less than 5mm in size are called “microplastics,” a term coined by Richard Thompson, a professor of marine science and engineering at Plymouth University in 2004. There are primary microplastics, meaning they were developed to be that small; one type of these is called “nurdles.” Nurdles are small pellets of plastic that are used in the manufacturing of plastic products. The nurdles are melted down and molded into an assortment of plastic products. Another group of primary microplasitics is commonly called “microbeads.” These are often used in personal care products such as facial scrubs, deodorants and make-up products to serve as a filler or exfoliation agent. Secondary microplastics are the result of larger plastic products, such as water bottles and plasticware, breaking down into smaller pieces.
The issue? These microplastics are ending up in our oceans. The most common type of microplastic that researchers are finding are “fibers” from the synthetic clothing we all love in Florida- the quick-dry, moisture wicking, ultra-lightweight material. These fibers are shed in the washing process and the resulting thread-like microplastics are sent to the wastewater treatment plant. Because they are too small to be filtered and removed from the system, many of them end up in our local water bodies. Once there, they are impossible to take out without removing all the microorganisms like phytoplankton and zooplankton. Research about the impacts of microplastics on aquatic organisms is very new; few studies have been published to date. So far negative impacts have been documented with oysters and larval fish. No studies have been published on the impacts of microplastics to human health…yet. We also know that in addition to the potentially dangerous chemicals found in plastics such as BPA, toxins in the ocean are likely to concentrate on the surface of microplastic particles. There is concern over how these toxins may impact the marine life living among and ingesting these microplastics.
What can you do?
- Educate yourself. UF/IFAS Extension is currently working on a NOAA Marine Debris Program grant called the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project (FMAP); you can find out more at plasticaware.org.
- Participate in beach clean-ups to help reduce secondary microplastics.
- Refuse to use one-use plastics like plastic bags, plastic straws, water bottles, cups, utensils, etc.
- You can take the FMAP pledge online to help encourage these small actions.
- Extension also runs two state-wide programs focused on water, so you can encourage your elected officials to attend Water Schools if your local county extension office offers them and/or you can request for your county to offer the new Florida Waters Stewardship Program.
Happy Learning!Learn more about Lara's work