By HANNAH LANDERS
A group of K-12 teachers stepped off a skiff onto the southern tip of Tybee Island on Tuesday morning.
Slathered in sunblock and carrying large plastic buckets, they weaved through lounging beachgoers and shouting children, sifting sand through circular metal sieves. They were there to search for microplastics — tiny pieces of plastic material that have become an environmental threat to Georgia’s coasts.
The expedition to Tybee was part of a four-day workshop about marine debris attended by teachers from across South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia. The workshop was led by University of Georgia Marine Extension Service in partnership with the Skidaway Island Institute of Oceanography and funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program.
Skidaway researcher Jay Brandes said he hopes the teachers take away an appreciation for the environment.
“I also hope they get a better understanding of what we’re doing here and just how many plastics are out there,” Brandes said.
Brandes, who has been studying environmental issues related to microplastics since 2009, led the group on Tuesday. He started with a presentation on microplastics and their effects on marine life before the group boarded the skiffs for the hour-long ride to Tybee.
Once there, workshop leader Dodie Sanders, with the marine extension service, gave the group instructions on how to collect the sand samples that they would later test at the Skidaway lab for microplastics.
Groups filled gallon plastic bags with sand, sifting out larger pieces of shell, debris or plant life. Each group labeled their bag with the GPS location of their sample and specified whether it was found at the low tide line or the high tide line.
When the groups returned to the lab, they put a measurement of sand into beakers with a measurement of sodium iodide. This allowed the sand and other heavy particles, such as glass, to sink while the plastics remained on the surface of the liquid. This top layer of debris was sifted and then examined under a microscope.
The group sampled 50 grams of sand and found about 80 fibers and possible microplastics.
“We’re just identifying visually,” Brandes said. “We don’t have the machines for absolute characterization. Some of these pieces may be natural.”
Brandes said the southern end of Tybee has regular beach cleanups as well as trash regulations, so it might be cleaner than other parts of the island, where plastics threaten the environment.
Microplastics and marine debris
Microplastics are small pieces of plastic that are usually invisible to the human eye and usually cannot be picked up by the unaided human hand, Brandes said. They are often categorized as pieces smaller than one centimeter, he said, though it varies depending on the study.
A study led by the Spanish National Research Council in 2010 found that all of the world’s oceans have microplastics floating on their surfaces. Of all the samples collected in the study, 88 percent had microplastics present, Brandes said.
A more recent study published this year found that microplastics are present in Arctic sea ice as well, an amount estimated at about one trillion pieces, Brandes said.
Because microplastics are so small, Brandes said, it’s difficult for scientists to say what exactly they’re made of and where they come from.
Other studies have revealed that plastics in general are capable of absorbing pharmaceutical chemicals and toxins to the point where they could be 100 to 1,000 times more toxic than the surrounding water, he said.
Though scientists are studying just how these toxic materials affect marine life, the consumption of the plastic alone is enough to fill or even block the digestive tract, Brandes said. A study of fish caught in the North Sea in 2012 revealed that one third of all fish had plastics in their stomachs, he said.
Plastics are also capable of carrying foreign organisms and bacteria to parts of the ocean that aren’t acclimated to them, Brandes said.
He cited coral banding disease in Hawaii as an example. In 2010, the disease started killing Hawaiian coral for the first time since scientists began studying the reefs there. They discovered the disease preferred to travel on plastic pieces, which were recovered in the water around the reefs.
Brandes said it would be nearly impossible for ocean cleanups to reach the scope and scale necessary to eliminate most marine debris, so the best solution is to reduce the overall flow of plastic going into the ocean. Scientists are experimenting with different kinds of biodegradable plastics such as ones made from starch or wood. But many companies aren’t willing to shoulder the extra cost that goes along with these plastic alternatives, he said.
“But I guess I’m pretty optimistic that this is going to end up getting us a long way,” he said. “Once we get to the point where these types of degradable plastics are dominant in the marketplace, then we’ll start to see some of these issues start to disappear.”
The four-day teacher workshop is the final part of a larger, year-long program called Project SORT: Using Marine Debris Surveys to Encourage Environmental Stewardship, said Sanders.
Sanders has been working with Skidaway professor Dick Lee to study the accumulation of marine debris on the Georgia coast since 2012.
“The concept of the workshop is to expose educators to the sources and the types of marine debris and how to alleviate their impact,” she said.
The first parts of Project SORT were focused on getting students involved in marine debris surveys, developing middle school and high school curriculums about marine debris and installing public exhibits about marine debris at the Tybee Island Science Center on Tybee, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island and the marine extension aquarium on Skidaway Island.
The workshop, which took place from Monday to Thursday, is the culmination of the year’s efforts, Sanders said.
“I see teachers as the liaison between research scientists and the general public,” she said. “They help make the information accessible and understandable.”
Initially, Sanders said she struggled with making marine debris as appealing as some of the other aquatic issues and causes.
“Sea turtles, whales, dolphins, they’re all sexy,” she said. “So how do I make plastic bottles sexy?”
The answer came in linking the natural with the unnatural. Though the workshop deals with marine debris, that’s just part of the picture, Sanders said. She also tries to make connections to the natural history of the area so educators can better understand marine debris through its effects on their local environments.
The teachers were treated to a mix of fieldwork and classroom lessons throughout the week. This included presentations from curriculum specialists, marine debris surveys at Tybee and Wassaw islands and presentations from Skidaway researchers and professors.
“Without research, we can’t educate. … Scientists provide the information we need to educate the general public,” Sanders said.
Educating the educators
At the workshop, many of the teachers were the ones doing the learning.
“I always knew there was garbage in the ocean, but it was like out of sight, out of mind,” said Jessica Brinkley, a teacher at Cedar Ridge Elementary in Dalton. “I thought if it looks clean, it probably is.”
She praised the fieldwork as key to her understanding of the issues affecting the coast.
“Anything you can do out in the world and bring into the classroom is great,” she said.
Brinkley came to the workshop with two colleagues from Cedar Ridge, Casey Woods and Brittany Wade. Because their school is tucked away in the forests of northwest Georgia, they said, their students oftentimes don’t realize the impact they have on something as far away as the ocean.
“It’s important for kids to have that global sense of self,” Wade said. “Being aware of the issue is just a good step on its own.”
Susan Reed from Main Street Academy in College Park said she also looks forward to teaching students about their impact on the environment.
“I want to teach students about what they can do on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “I want to tell them what they can do locally to protect our area and the world at large because it’s all connected.”
Kimberly Roberts, an early childhood educator from the Oatland Island Wildlife Center, said she is excited to share the information with students and parents to get entire families involved in environmental preservation.
Sanders stressed the importance of teaching others to be proactive and to focus on altering simple daily behaviors. Ultimately, she said, she hopes the behaviors she and other educators are advocating for today will become second nature in the future.
“The goal is to create a more informed, knowledgeable citizenry that is proactive,” she said. “Education is at the forefront with this issue.”
Sanders said she hopes to have a similar program next year but hasn’t found funding.
Educators in the workshop also hope the program returns.
“I’m looking forward to seeing it evolve and continue,” Roberts said.
From Savannah Now