New College students Katherine Hacic (left) and Bristen Groves (right) collect trash along Sarasota Bay.

By Abby Weingarten

While collecting trash along the shoreline of Sarasota Bay in mid-October, New College first-year Bristen Groves uncovered several pieces of brightly-colored plastic.

She amassed a trove of these “microplastics” by the time the “Kayaking & Clean The Bay” volunteer event ended that afternoon, and the findings left her creatively inspired.

“These microplastics are small pieces of plastic found in the environment as a result of larger products breaking down,” Groves explained. “Some of the other students found some as well, and when we reconvened to dump the trash we had found out on the table, it honestly made us all so sad how little of it could actually be recycled.”

What could be done with these beautiful castaways?, Groves and her peers wondered. They had an idea: To take all of the microplastics and turn them into a mural on the New College campus.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea. We are so excited about this, and about Bristen being the student leader on the project,” said New College AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer Coordinator Sarah Lapton, who organized the cleanup event. “Starting in January, students will have the opportunity to volunteer for the project and to help create a legacy. Our purpose is to notice how much waste humans throw out and to collect different types of plastics.”

Lapton plans to meet with student participants twice a week in January (not an Independent Study Project, just a volunteer effort), and to organize field trip days to different Sarasota locations for trash pickups. The work will culminate in a mural on the Caples Campus.

“We will be creating a mural that says or has a design related to keeping the environment clean. This piece of art will be a permanent mural on the boathouse’s shed,” Lapton said. “Not only do our students go to the waterfront, but so do people from the community. This mural will help spread awareness of the plastic problem we have, and hopefully spark interest in others to change their habits.”

For Groves, it’s an opportunity to do turn a negative (non-biodegradable trash) into a positive (artistic treasure).

“When I was looking at the microplastics, I just kept thinking, ‘Surely there must be something we can do.’ I was not ready to simply throw them all away when I knew there was something more that could be done,” Groves said. “I remembered a conversation I had with Sarah about how someone had actually made a wall of microplastics as art. I asked if we could do something like that here on campus as a better alternative to just letting the plastic collect in landfills.”

A waterfront student worker later informed Groves that there was a side of a shed by the boathouse that was supposed to be painted years ago, and that the students could use that area for their project. So, the students took what they had (a dirty bucket from their cleanup event, a Sharpie, some duct tape, and a handful of microplastics) and made their first microplastics collecting bin.

“We then all continued talking about how we would make this project a reality, and about trying to possibly get funding to set up more buckets around campus—collecting straws, bottlecaps and microplastics,” Groves said. “When it comes together, not only will we be creating a cool, unique piece of art on our campus to leave our legacy, but we also will be limiting some of the trash (even if it is only a small amount) that goes into landfills. I truly believe that it is often the smallest acts that make the biggest difference.”

And it will make a difference for years to come, Lapton said.

“The mural is so exciting because it will be the students’ legacy—their mark on the school and the environment,” Lapton said. “Once this mural is complete, it will show that our New College students have a strong dedication, are hardworking, and have a compassionate attitude towards the environment and the community.”

Any students who are interested in participating in this volunteer project (and who can commit to meeting twice a week for a month in January), should contact Sarah Lapton at slapton@ncf.edu

Abby Weingarten is the senior editor in the Office of Communications & Marketing.

Founded in Sarasota in 1960, New College of Florida is a top-ranked public liberal arts college and the state’s Honors College of Florida. New College prepares intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement by providing a highly individualized education that integrates academic rigor with career-building experiences. New College offers 45 undergraduate majors in arts, humanities and sciences, a master’s degree program in applied data science, and certificates in technology, finance, and business skills.

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