In the early 2000s, scientists taking samples in open water looking for tiny organisms instead stumbled on something man-made – microplastics.
Those are 5 millimeters or smaller -- think the size of a pencil eraser.
Once people realized that microplastics were out there in the environment, alarms started going off. Because if marine animals ingest plastics and humans eat seafood, then, well, you get the idea.
Today, as much as 8 billion tons of plastics are ending up in our oceans each year. Researchers provide a visual for that amount of trash: Imagine stacking five kitchen garage bags on every foot of shoreline across 192 countries.
How does so much plastic make it into the environment?
For starters, people litter. And trash naturally degrades over time, getting washed along into streams and rivers when it rains.
Many types of clothing are made with synthetic materials, like polyester and nylon, that break down with each wash. Wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove such tiny fibers.
The stuffing in pillows and toys are full of “nurdles,” which are raw resin pellets melted down by manufacturers.
So what can you do about a worldwide problem?
Here are things that environmentalists suggest:
Support restaurants that use silverware and glass instead of plastic and straws and bring your own leftover containers when you eat out.
When purchasing clothes or linens, buy 100 percent cotton and avoid items wrapped in plastic.
For more than 25 years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been monitoring sea levels around the world.
A real-time map (https://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov/sltrends/sltrends.html) tracks the trends.
Here in Florida, NOAA maintains about 15 long-term, water-level stations. One is in St. Petersburg, on a dock at Bayboro Harbo, US Coast Guard and another is on the coast at Clearwater Beach.
Like most of North America, the Florida stations have green and yellow arrows pointing up, meaning that sea level is rising somewhere between 1 and 2 feet per century.
The change may seem subtle, but the long-term effects could be devastating.
Think high tides and tidal surges, which cause erosion and eliminate dunes across Florida’s vast coastline.
Coastal ecosystems also are upended by rising water. Many fish live among seagrass, salt marshes or mangroves. Beaches and dunes provide homes for shorebirds, tortoise and mice, many of which are threatened. Woodpeckers, deer, snakes and rodents live in coastal forests. Estuaries are filled with oysters, shrimp and marine vertebrates and invertebrates, as well as the birds that feed on them.
As waters rise, they also can mix with the fresh water in rivers and lakes.
The domino effect of all these changes ultimately can hurt Florida’s economy, which is so driven by its natural beauty and wildlife.
What is “Florida-friendly” landscaping?
For one thing, it’s the law of the land.
In 2009, the state, by statute, embraced that style over xeriscape, landscaping that’s popular in arid regions because it requires so little irrigation.
Florida-friendly landscaping involves lots of plants, which support wildlife and reduce stormwater runoff. Plants also help cut down on what’s known as nonpoint source pollution, the kind where it’s not easy to pinpoint the origin. Think about oil leaking from your car or animal waste.
Plants must be planted where they can thrive, not just survive. A basic site analysis involves looking at sun and shade patterns and considering soil moisture, texture and PH.
And it’s important to consider how large a plant might grow. Too much pruning is bad for a plant and a never-ending task for the homeowner.
It’s best to use native plants and avoid invasive ones, like heavenly bamboo and Mexican petunia, which are sold in local garden centers.
Florida-friendly landscaping also encourages homeowners to think about how they handle water.
If you’re using a sprinkler, is it working properly or forcing a geyser to shoot into the air? Are you watering in the morning before the sun can evaporate the moisture? Is the sprinkler aimed at the sidewalk or driveway, where the water runs off and doesn’t sink into the ground?
Do you have a retention system for rainwater?
What about rain gardens, swales or terracing?
Those can help filter the water and limit pollutants that get carried away, ultimately into streams, rivers and bays.
Think of a coffee filter, keeping out grounds so the water can drain cleanly.
Wetlands typically do the same work, but trash and invasive plants keep them from functioning as intended.
So part of the effort to improve Florida waters involves restoring wetlands.
Agencies like the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the South Florida Water Management District permit and fund long-range efforts around rivers, lakes and streams. They install stormwater management systems to keep pollutants from draining into bigger watersheds and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic Ocean. And wastewater treatment plants recycle water, to keep from draining aquifers already stressed by development.
Two local restoration projects illustrate how long clean-up can take.
Work started at Lake Seminole nearly 20 years ago and is ongoing. So far, approximately 900,000 cubic yards of organic sediment has been removed, improving water quality and habitats. The lake connects to Long Bayou, which drains into Boca Ciega Bay.
The Clam Bayou restoration began in 1995, with a 10-acre project near the Gulfport Marina. By 2012, two other efforts had encompassed more than 50 acres around the bayou. Clam Bayou also flows into Boca Ciega, which flows into Tampa Bay.
Check out more on those projects:
PART 1 The water calculator
Florida is defined by water.
To the north, rivers, lakes and springs run over hills and through woods. The south is filled with wetlands, and the peninsula itself is surrounded by ocean or gulf.
Underneath the state are five major aquifers, and that groundwater supplies 90 percent of Florida’s drinking water and half its agricultural needs.
The supply has been stressed by population, development and pollution, which is why local officials try to encourage conservation.
The Tampa Bay Times has a seat in a Florida Waters Stewardship Program, a seven-week course that aims to teach residents how to do their part.
Follow along as we move in and out of the classroom and travel around the region to show you our world and what’s at stake.
Let’s start with this:
Do you think about how often you flush?
How regularly you eat meat?
How much you spend on dog or cat food?
Those were some of the questions asked at the start of the program.
And we were introduced to the water calculator, a way to measure not just what comes out of our taps but also “virtual water,” what it takes to produce food, energy and products.
My calculated footprint: 2,032 gallons per day. The U.S. average is 2,220 gallons.
Still, it’s clear that I can do better – buy less, repurpose more. Eat more veggies. Avoid nuts, which use lots of water to produce. And, tough as it is, drink one less cup of coffee per day.
How about you? Answer the water calculator question and hopefully you will get a better ideas of your water footprint. What is your water footprint?