Citizen Scientists Research and Prevent Microplastics in Florida

A citizen scientists collects water samples.

Florida Sea Grant and the NOAA Marine Debris Program partnered to create a network of citizen scientists across Florida to study microplastics and lead education and outreach events.

Type of Project: Marine Debris Prevention through Education and Outreach Grant

Region: Florida & the Caribbean

Project Dates: September 2015 - August 2016

Who is involved?
With the support of a NOAA Marine Debris Program Marine Debris Prevention through Education and Outreach Grant, Florida Sea Grant trained partners, including ten extension faculty from the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Science, staff from Rookery Bay and Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserves, The Florida Aquarium, MarineLab, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, and the Marine Discovery Center, to serve as regional coordinators for the project. Florida Sea Grant and the regional coordinators, located in various Florida coastal counties, worked with local volunteers to conduct microplastic sampling and to conduct education and outreach.

What is the project and why is it important?
Plastic is a form of marine debris that is ubiquitous throughout the ocean, coasts, and Great Lakes. When smaller than 5mm, these plastics are called “microplastics,” which can cause numerous problems when introduced into the marine environment. Research has shown that plastic debris persists in aquatic and marine habitats, never truly breaking down but instead breaking into ever-smaller pieces. In addition, toxic chemicals found in low concentrations in ocean water have been found to stick to the surface of plastics, becoming concentrated there. Additional research has reported that these toxic plastics are regularly consumed by marine life and initial research indicates that ingested plastics may then transfer these toxic chemicals to marine organisms.

To address the microplastic issue in Florida, Florida Sea Grant trained fifteen partners around the state as regional coordinators for the project and educated them on water sampling protocols, methods for analyzing water samples for microplastics, and isolating microplastics from personal care products. These regional coordinators then used this training to instruct and work with citizen science volunteers in their coastal counties to collect and analyze monthly samples from at least twenty locations for a minimum of four months in order to quantify amounts of microplastics in various locations. The data collected by the regional coordinators and citizen scientists was recorded on an online data reporting form and then displayed in a map on the project website created by Florida Sea Grant. The collected information was used to educate Floridians about microplastics and to show them that microplastics are not just a problem somewhere else, but are present in local waters.

Florida Sea Grant developed several education and outreach materials for reaching the public at outreach events including posters, fliers, “I pledge to keep our ocean clean by saying ‘no’ to polyethylene” pledge sheets and cotton tote bags, and microplastic exhibits. Regional coordinators and volunteers used these materials at events including Earth Day, International Coastal Cleanup, and National Estuarine Day events. These posters were also distributed to local partners including local, state, and national parks, National Estuarine Research Reserves, zoos, science centers, aquariums, and schools. Individuals who signed the pledge to read labels on personal care products and to avoid purchasing those with polyethylene were contacted via email approximately three months later with an online survey to determine if they have made changes in their purchasing behavior. Reaching the public in this way worked to fight this pervasive problem by reducing the amount of microplastics entering the marine environment through the wastewater stream.