As a third-year Ph.D. student in chemical oceanography at the UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, the Georgia Sea Grant Graduate Research Traineeship has provided me with a great opportunity to conduct environmentally relevant research on photochemical degradation of microplastic fibers.

Microplastic pollution in marine ecosystems has become an increasing matter of importance in both research interest and environmental concern. My Ph.D. advisor Dr. Jay Brandes and Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant educator Dodie Sanders have been conducting distribution studies on microplastics in the Georgia coast. Through their research, they learned that there could be up to 1 trillion microplastics in Georgia’s intercoastal waterways. A large portion of these microplastics are microfibers, which likely derive from the synthetic fabrics we use daily. The work done by Brandes and Sanders inspired me to study the fate of microplastics. Microplastics degrade in various ways, but few of those have been quantitatively assessed. There are no published studies on the rates or degradation products of plastic microfibers in aquatic environments. With my research, I’m taking an initiative to fill the knowledge gap in photodegradation (breaking down by the sun) of plastic microfibers under environmentally relevant conditions.

In the lab, I want to make sure my experiment conditions represent the temperature and amount of sunlight microfibers would encounter on the Georgia coast. My experiment begins with putting small pieces of yarn and fabric swatches of commercially available plastic types into a freezer mill. This machine grinds the small pieces into microfibers of less than one millimeter in length. These microfiber samples are then suspended in seawater and distributed to quartz containers so that I can conduct degradation experiments under a solar simulator. I then measure the weight loss of microfibers over time to determine how fast microfibers degrade. Ultimately, I will be able to extrapolate the results to obtain a first estimate of the annual photodegradation rate of microfibers for the entire Georgia coast. These results could better inform the general public and policy makers on the fate of microplastics after they enter our waterways, and hopefully contribute to better decision making in terms of plastic use.

In addition to conducting research, I’m able to participate in education and outreach activities as part of my traineeship. I’m currently working with Dodie Sanders to develop a two-day Coastal Stewards workshop on microplastics pollution for the public. Helping develop and implement the workshop with the results of my research is a great opportunity for me to gain public outreach and education experiences and to convert what I learn in the field and in the lab to knowledge and information that the general public can understand and use. I hope this will lead to increased awareness and actions concerning microplastics in the effort to build a sustainable future.