February 2019 – The River Board’s Technical Advisory Council recently received a presentation by University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension Service regarding plastics in the environment. Particularly after a heavy rain, trash finds its way into the Hillsborough River.
Beginning around the 1950s, more and more of the trash being produced was in the form of plastic. These plastics resist break down and degradation and can persist in the environment indefinitely. While they can break apart into smaller and smaller pieces, they seem to never go away.
In 2004, the term ‘microplastic’ was coined by Dr. R.C. Thompson and is generally defined as plastics that are less than 5 mm in size. Secondary microplastics are small pieces resulting from the degradation of larger plastic items. Primary microplastics like microbeads are made small for their planned applications, such as facial scrubs and other personal care products. These primary microplastics persist in the environment, particularly in our oceans, bays, and waterways, and are increasingly becoming a problem for wildlife.
Birds and fish, including those that are a source of food for humans, ingest these microplastics. These plastics are composed of chemicals suspected of having harmful health effects. There is much that we do not (yet) know about the impacts of plastics in the environment. Hopefully, research over the next several years will help answer some of these questions. In the meantime, we can reduce our dependence on single use plastics, such as drinking straws, and check the ingredient label before we purchase personal care products to ensure they don’t contain plastic microbeads often labeled Polyethylene. A great source of information on helping to reduce plastics is the Florida Plastic Awareness Project.