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Coastal Florida Universities Team Up to Fight Ocean Plastic Pollution

Large blue UNF banner hanging in the student union plazaThe University of North Florida (UNF) and Eckerd College have received a $150,000 award from the NOAA Marine Debris Program to reduce single-use plastic consumption and foster long-term pro-environmental behaviors among undergraduates in coastal communities. The goal is to reduce generation of marine debris in those areas over time. 

The two-year project will integrate education and outreach initiatives to increase awareness, affect attitudes and beliefs, and encourage behavior changes among members of the UNF campus community regarding reducing plastic consumption.

Single-use plastics are well-documented to be one of the major sources of plastic debris in the ocean. Improperly disposed plastic items, and even those placed in recycling or garbage bins, can be blown by wind or washed by rain and eventually enter the marine environment. It is essential to decrease or eliminate consumption of single-use plastic items to prevent this pollution from entering the ocean.

Eckerd College launched the Reduce Single-Use project in 2018 at its St. Petersburg campus near the Gulf Coast. This new study is a partnership that builds off the initial findings and attempts to replicate the project on UNF’s campus near the Atlantic Ocean as it has richer diversity and provides a unique opportunity to learn how to reduce single-use plastic on a larger scale.

Through this new phase of the project on the UNF campus, participation in multiple week-long Plastic Reduction Challenges will lead to increased individual accountability and commitment via an easy-to-use smartphone app. Participants will log each use and refusal of single-use plastic and receive real-time feedback on behavior.

With the support of the UNF Environmental Center, a series of workshops, lectures, beach cleanup activities and other events will also take place during the project to increase plastic reduction awareness and encourage sustainable behaviors. UNF and Eckerd College will then analyze the data collected from the application, as well as surveys from the activities, to further understanding consumption patterns. 

UNF researchers include Dr. Erin Largo-Wight, public health professor, and Dr. Heather Barnes Truelove, psychology associate professor, who will work together to manage the project at UNF. This will include coordinating study design, participant recruitment, data collection and analysis, reporting, graduate assistant supervision, challenge events, education and outreach initiatives, and manuscript preparation/submission. In addition, James W. Taylor, UNF Environmental Center assistant director, will support and facilitate the research team and cultivate student involvement.

Largo-Wight has conducted research in applied environmental health promotion for over 15 years, including testing the determinants of environmental behaviors and evaluating the impact of environmental and stewardship behavior change programs and education. She also serves as the UNF Environmental Center director, where she oversees academic initiatives, student engagement programs, professional development scholarships, and faculty research in environmental issues. 

Truelove’s expertise is in the psychological dimensions of environmental behavior and has worked on several federally funded projects related to environmental behavior. Truelove has extensive experience supervising undergraduate and graduate research projects involving experimental and survey procedures related to pro-environmental behavior, including projects relating to reduction of single-use plastic straws, use of reusable water bottles, and support for plastic reduction policies. 

Taylor will coordinate the outreach/education at UNF and mentor the student researchers and scholars who will participate in this project as part of UNF’s innovative Environmental Center Leadership Program.

Eckerd College will continue to manage the grant, run surveys, conduct challenges and outreach activities, as well as collect and analyze the data received from the UNF campus, by researchers including Dr. Amy NS Siuda, Marine Science; Dr. Shannon Gowans, Marine Science and Biology; Evan Bollier, Office of Sustainability; Dr. Kelly Debure, Computer Science; and Dr. Jesse Sherry, Environmental Studies.

The outreach project is set to be completed near fall 2022.