Small plastics can lead to a big problem

By Taylor Gutierrez

Melinda Paduani

Our coastal and wetland ecosystems are facing very real pollution threats from an invader so tiny, it can only be seen through a microscope.

Melinda Paduani, a Ph.D. student in the FIU Institute of Environment’s CREST Center for Aquatic Chemistry and Environment, studies where microplastics come from, how they spread and how they affect coastal communities.

“There is a knowledge gap in the field on how those microplastics move throughout the environment,” she said. “This is important because they’re smaller. It’s harder to track them. You can’t manage what you can’t measure, and that’s what makes microplastics so tricky.”

As International Coastal Cleanup Day approaches, Paduani’s work could help identify sources of microplastic pollution and help us better understand how we can keep something so tiny from becoming a large ecological disaster.

“There is still so much that we don’t know about microplastics. This field has grown very quickly,” Paduani said. “In terms of the ecology of microplastics, it is really important for us to understand their pathways and trace these microplastics as if they are any other water pollutant that we have been studying for decades.”

While the problem may seem daunting, Paduani said cleanups can play a role in addressing the pollution problem that we face with our waterways. Coastal cleanups can be one of the easiest ways for people to lessen the impacts of plastic pollution while also raising awareness. Groups like VolunteerCleanup.Org have partnered with the Ocean Conservancy so volunteers can document the types of plastics and sources of marine debris found at any location.

“Cleanups are important because they get people out there to see the problem,” Paduani said. “When people do go out there, they should keep their eyes out for the smaller things. They can be hidden among the plants or right under the surface. “If you toss the sand, you’re going to find small broken pieces that probably would have been overlooked otherwise.”

This citizen-collected data is critical as it can be used to educate the public and even influence environmental policymakers. Paduani intends to achieve a similar goal by educating school groups on how to collect water samples around Biscayne Bay and test for the presence of microplastics. Data from that project will be uploaded to an online database that will provide a baseline of how much microplastic is in Biscayne Bay.

By collaborating with average citizens and students, Paduani hopes this will increase awareness and expand her microplastic research elsewhere.