Last weekend I made a jaunt down to Fort Myers to run the Edison Bridge. I have the New York City Marathon coming up — which has five bridge crossings — so I’ve been trying to hit different bridges throughout my training.

The Edison Bridge is short but steep-steeper than our U.S. 41 bridges over the Peace River, anyway) so it’s a nice one to have in rotation. There’s a sidewalk on the southbound Edison Bridge, but none on the northbound side, so it tends to get crowded. However, I didn’t find it to be too bad for this particular run.

What I did find bad was all the trash on the north end of the bridge. The amount was heartbreaking, especially since Coastal Cleanup was just last month. But I have since noticed that Lee County postponed their cleanup until Oct. 13 due to red tide, so maybe this trash will soon be collected.

I don’t mean to pick on Lee County and their trash. We certainly have our share of trashy areas to the north too. One thing about running and walking: When there’s garbage around, you can’t help but notice it. In this particular case, what was most prevalent seemed to be plastic.

Did you know the first synthetic plastic was invented in 1907? Synthetic plastic means it contains no molecules found in nature. Plastic is used for many things, and in fact, it’s hard to find a non-food substance that does not contain some amount of plastic. Today’s plastic is made from a wide range of polymers such as polyethylene, PVC and nylon. These polymers are molded into shape while soft and then set into a rigid or slightly elastic form.

Scientists began noticing plastic in the world’s oceans in appreciable amounts in the 1960s. And, that was just the plastic visible to the human eye. Over time, plastics fragment and disintegrate, but they are still there. When plastic particles are smaller than one-fifth of an inch in size they are called microplastics.

Data from the Algalita Marine Research Institute show that the amount of plastic (and microplastic) sampled in the same ocean gyre increased more than seven times between 1999 and 2008. In 1999, the group reported that plastic outweighed zooplankton (microscopic animals) by a ratio of 6:1. By 2008, that ratio was 45:1.

Why should we care? Many published studies have shown that plastics occur in the gut contents of marine species in the wild. In fact, the leatherback sea turtle is often found with plastic bags in its gut because floating plastic bags look very much like their primary food, jellyfish.

Studies have also shown uptake of microplastics by a variety of animals, from zooplankton and corals to mussels and fishes. Some studies have shown that animals that consume microplastics have a lower reproductive success rate, and their offspring are less fit. More directly related to humans, microplastics have been found in table sea salt and bottled drinking water. Because these tiny bits are light, they’re also in the air we breathe.

At work, my office oversees Charlotte County’s participation in the Florida Microplastics Awareness Project. We have trained volunteers who collect and analyze water samples from around Charlotte Harbor for microplastics. They find on average about four or five pieces in every liter (roughly a quart) of water. And that’s just the little stuff.

But it’s knowing about the little stuff that makes seeing the big stuff so heartbreaking. When I casually walk, I bring a bag and pick up trash as I see it. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to do when I’m running and trying to maintain a particular pace. But I try to do my part in other ways. When possible, I avoid single-use plastics by doing simple things like bringing my own cloth bags when I shop, using a refillable water container, and refusing straws at restaurants. I also read labels and avoid synthetic materials and personal care products that contain polyethylene.

Hopefully someday I’ll be able to go for a run and not see the trashy side of this activity. But until then, I’ll keep doing my part — one piece of plastic at a time.

Betty Staugler is the Charlotte County extension agent for the Florida Sea Grant Program and an active runner. Contact her at staugler@ufl.edu or 941-764-4346.

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