Students from Florida Atlantic University High School participated in Research Immersion Day, which involved environmental microplastics.
Students from Florida Atlantic University High School participated in Research Immersion Day, which involved environmental microplastics.

Florida Atlantic University High School Students Investigate Microplastics with Loggerhead Marinelife Center

Florida Atlantic University High School Students investigated microplastics with Loggerhead Marinelife Center.
Florida Atlantic University High School Students investigated microplastics with Loggerhead Marinelife Center.

On Saturday, January 30, a group of nine high school students from Florida Atlantic University High School (FAU) participated in “Research Immersion Day,” which involved environmental microplastics at Loggerhead Marinelife Center (LMC). Microplastics are plastic particles that are smaller than five millimeters. Plastic can leach chemicals and toxins into seawater, be eaten by marine life, and even end up in humans. During the immersive experience, FAU students gained hands-on research experience while working alongside LMC staff biologists. 

Burn Tests

Florida Atlantic University High School Students collected and examined water samples to determine the presence of microplastics.
Florida Atlantic University High School Students collected and examined water samples to determine the presence of microplastics.

During a tour of our Outdoor Sea Turtle Hospital, the students learned about the sea turtle patients, many of whom came to the hospital after having ingested plastic. After a brief introduction, led by LMC’s Assistant Education Manager, Lindsay French, students collected their own sample of seawater and took it back to the lab to test for the presence of microplastics.

After gathering seawater samples from Juno Beach, the students used a vacuum filtration apparatus to separate the seawater from solids that may have been suspended. Students were then given stereoscopes to analyze samples taken from previous research and learned how scientists use a burn test to determine if small particles are microplastics or organic materials. Participants took the flame to various materials in order to test whether it burned (organic) or melted (plastic). After the lab portion, students were able to discuss the issue at hand, ask questions, and talk about possible solutions.

The students learned that many of Loggerhead Marinelife Center's patients arrive at its hospital after having ingested plastic.
The students learned that many of Loggerhead Marinelife Center’s patients arrive at its hospital after having ingested plastic.

Microplastics can originate from a variety of sources, both large and small. Some microplastics are actually from macroplastics that have broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, these are known as secondary microplastics (McGuire et al., 2015). If large pieces of plastic end up in the ocean, they can be broken down by wave action and sunlight until they are considered microplastics.

On the other hand, some products actually contain microplastics. Microbeads that are often found in face scrubs and tubes of toothpaste are too small to be filtered out in many water treatment plants and end up in the oceans. Major sources of microplastics also include synthetic fibers from clothing that are shed in the washing process, accidental loss of nurdles, which are pre-production resin pellets, and stormwater runoff from industrial areas. These small plastics continue to break down and have been found in some of the smallest members of the marine food chain – plankton. This is a problem because of something known as bioaccumulation.

Bioaccumulation happens when plastics travel up the food chain and continue to build up in animals because of the plastic that their prey has consumed. Unfortunately, because of bioaccumulation, researchers have discovered microplastics in all levels of the food chain, including humans. Microplastics and microfibers have been found in bottled water, tap water, and seafood (McGuire et al., 2015). 

Positive Takeaways

Loggerhead Marinelife Center encouraged students to continue to examine microplastics and contribute their data to the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project.
Loggerhead Marinelife Center encouraged students to continue to examine microplastics and contribute their data to the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project.

On a more positive note, we are beginning to understand the effect microplastics might have on the environment, animals, and people with further research. Many countries have passed laws that ban the sale of cosmetic products that contain microbeads. In 2015, The U.S. passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act, which took full effect in July 2018. This legislation specifically bans microplastics in products that are designed to exfoliate or cleanse, such as toothpaste and body scrubs.

Unfortunately, this does not solve the problem of larger plastic items breaking down into microplastics. This is why it is important to take steps to reduce your plastic use. Reducing your plastic use by using reusable replacements for single-use plastics, reusing items instead of throwing them away after one use, and recycling what can not be reduced or reused are great ways to decrease your plastic consumption. 

The samples taken by the students were taken back to FAU for analysis to determine which particles are organic and which particles are plastic, using the burn test they learned at LMC. The data the FAU students collect will be added to the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, a citizen science database. This data is then reflected on a map to provide a visual of the concentration of these microplastics.

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Education. LMC’s Education programs aim to empower and inspire individuals to engage in the conservation of the world’s ocean by providing STEM-based knowledge and resources to take responsible action. For in-field, in-classroom, and virtual education experiences, please email Guest Services at reservations@marinelife.org.

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Loggerhead Marinelife Center. Loggerhead Marinelife Center (LMC) is a nonprofit sea turtle research, rehabilitation, and educational institution that promotes the conservation of ocean ecosystems with a focus on threatened and endangered sea turtles. The Center features an on-site hospital, research laboratory, educational exhibits, and aquariums, and also operates the Juno Beach Pier, which hosts world-class angling and sightseeing. Situated on one of the world’s most important sea turtle nesting beaches, LMC is open daily and hosts over 350,000 guests free-of-charge each year. The Center’s conservation team works with 90 local and international organizations across six continents to form partnerships and share conservation initiatives and best practices that are core to its mission of ocean conservation. The Center is expanding and has launched its Waves of Progress capital expansion campaign, designed to accelerate and amplify LMC’s conservation and education impact. When complete, the facility will offer one of the world’s most advanced and unique experiences for guests and scientific partners. For more information, visit www.marinelife.org or call (561) 627-8280.