UGA Skidaway story

Volunteers Maddie Monroe and Jim Orr collect water samples for microplastics. (Photo/Dorothea Sanders)

Researchers at the University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography are working at the forefront of discovering how and to what extent humans are damaging the environment all along Georgia’s coast with the help of community volunteers.

Jay Brandes, a UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography researcher, and Dorothea “Dodie” Sanders, an educator at the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, have teamed up to map the abundance of microplastics in the waters along Georgia’s coast and understand their sources.

Microplastics are defined by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the European Chemicals Agency as fragments of any type of plastic less than 5 mm in length. While some microplastics are produced in the process of making bigger plastics such as a water bottle, when these bigger plastics find their way into waterways like rivers or oceans, they can break down into these microplastics as well.

In 2017, Brandes and Sanders worked on a project looking at microplastics in aquatic organisms in various Georgia waterways, which prompted them to begin looking into what was going on in the water columns in which these organisms were living.

To do so, Brandes and Sanders took water samples at several locations across Georgia’s coast, and filtered and analyzed the microplastics in them to map out the distribution and concentration of microplastics along the coast. Collecting these samples one time, however, is only a snapshot of data, so to understand what’s really going on, this process would need to be repeated monthly for at least a year — preferably two.

A Community of Scientists

A daunting task that was logistically impossible to conduct with just Brandes and Sanders, they had to look elsewhere for help. They approached the Satilla, Altamaha and Ogeechee Riverkeeper groups, grassroots organizations dedicated to monitoring the health of different Georgia rivers.

In the process of helping conduct this research, these groups of volunteers were coined “community scientists” since they had no previous extensive training or education in these fields. Regardless, these community scientists were able to effectively contribute to the study.

The community scientists said they would be more than happy to collect samples if Brandes and Sanders showed them how to do it properly and provided the groups with tools.

“Contamination is the number one concern when dealing with microplastics,” Sanders said. She and Brandes conducted these training sessions with the community scientists to ensure human interference would be mitigated from their data as much as possible.

Incredible precautions must be taken to avoid these contaminations. “[Microplastics] are everywhere. In the water, in the sediments, in the air,” Sanders said. She also said anything from the direction of the wind to the material of the clothes you’re wearing have to be taken into account.

All volunteers were trained on how to properly collect samples, but a few were even trained on how to analyze these samples in the laboratory as well.

“[The volunteers] act as force multipliers,” Sanders said. She also said the community scientists’ involvement helps make research more available and understandable to the community when its members are given the opportunity to see the work, be a part of it and make a difference themselves.

The future of microplastics research

While most scientific research does require extensive training and education to conduct, Brandes and Sanders emphasize the benefits of community scientists when they can be used. Without the volunteering of these community scientists, this research would have been too costly to have been conducted, Brandes said.

The world of microplastics is a very new field that has gained interest over the past decade or so, Brandes said, and there is still much to be learned about the sources of microplastics and the effects they have on the environment and its organisms.

“How does that plastic impact the organism itself, and then how does it ultimately impact the food chain as it moves up?” Sanders said.

What is known, however, is that the mass production and use of plastics is, at some level, negatively impacting our aquatic environments.

“We're going to learn a lot in the next 10 years about just how much of a hole we dug ourselves into here on this,” Brandes said. “The less we can keep digging and putting plastics out there, the better.”