Each time you do a load of laundry, you may inadvertently send tiny pieces of plastic to a nearby lake or ocean, according to Maia McGuire, a Florida Sea Grant agent with UF/IFAS Extension Flagler County.
That’s because when we wash synthetic fabrics, such as rayon and spandex, plastic threads get washed out with the rinse cycle and sent to a wastewater treatment plant, McGuire said. These threads are a kind of microplastic called microfiber. Like all microplastic, microfibers are less than 5 millimeters in size—less than the width of a pencil eraser. Because they are so small, microfibers pass through many filters used in treatment plants and end up in lakes and oceans. Microplastic can affect marine life, because plastics tend to absorb toxins floating in the ocean, and over time, high concentrations of these chemicals can build up on plastic surfaces. Furthermore, some plastics are manufactured with substances that can harm to marine life. When animals ingest plastic, toxins can enter their bodies and may move up the food chain.
A little over a year ago, McGuire began the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, a citizen science project that 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, McGuire said. McGuire is also working to partner with wastewater treatment plants and faculty in the UF department of environmental engineering to find ways to filter out microfibers from waste water.
The Florida Microplastic Awareness Project also works to promote lifestyle changes that help keep plastic out of oceans and waterways. So far, 900 people have pledged to make various behavior changes to reduce how much plastic gets into the ocean, McGuire reported.
A volunteer in the Microplastic Awareness Project takes a water sample. UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones