Reducing microplastics: How to keep our beaches safe

Coastal Federation volunteers search for microplastics
Coastal Federation volunteers search for microplastics(Coastal Federation/Stacia Strong)
Published: Jun. 14, 2022 at 5:26 PM EDT
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WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, N.C. (WITN) - Beach season has arrived in North Carolina, but environmental volunteers aren’t just heading to the coast for a day of fun. They’re collecting samples from beaches in a search for tiny pieces of plastic.

Armed with buckets and a sieve, Coastal Federation volunteer David Cignotti has been combing the beach for tiny pieces of plastic.

“I’ve always been interested in plastic pollution and the more I’ve learned about microplastics, I wanted to learn how it affects us locally,” Cignotti said. “And I think this is a good attempt to find a baseline on our North Carolina beaches.”

Dick Gongaware has been volunteering along with Cignotti.

“As a former high school science teacher, teaching AP environmental science, I do believe in citizen science,” Gongaware said. “I think it has some value and this is essentially a citizen science program.”

Coastal Federation volunteers searching for microplastics
Coastal Federation volunteers searching for microplastics(Coastal Federation/Stacia Strong)

Researchers across the country are only just now beginning to understand microplastics.

“We have more questions than answers right now,” Kerri Allen, Coastal Federation advocate, said. “We’re working with a lot of researchers both around the state and the country to understand the impact of these microplastics on the natural environment, as well as on human health.”

Microplastics are defined as any piece of plastic that is less than five millimeters in size. They can be that tiny from breaking down in the environment over time or because they are part of something that broke apart.

For this reason, citizen science projects like the one Cignotti and Gongaware are participating in are critically important.

“Our hope is with this program, we can have them establish what the problem is, how pervasive these microplastics are, and see if there’s one specific type of microplastic that they are finding, so we can try to address it from a policy perspective,” Allen said.

The more than 30 volunteers are all assigned to a different area of beach along the southeastern stretch of the state, and for the next six months, on a weekly basis, the volunteers will keep searching and collecting microplastics.

“It’s hands-on, and that’s what I used to teach, and I think it makes people feel connected to be able to do that,” Gongaware said.

Cignotti echoed that sentiment.

“I think it’s really important that people get involved in their local communities, as far as protecting our coastal environment in North Carolina, because it’s second to none,” Cignotti said.

David Cignotti and Dick Gongaware searching for microplastics on Wrightsville Beach
David Cignotti and Dick Gongaware searching for microplastics on Wrightsville Beach(Coastal Federation/Stacia Strong)

The citizen science project is part of a larger program by the Environmental Protection Agency encouraging people from across the country to join in on collecting microplastic samples.

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