Tuesday, November 18, 2014

It was a cold, blustery week on the Chesapeake...

Why did we do this?

Trash Free Maryland works on policies to reduce litter and trash pollution--bag bills, bottle bill, polystyrene foam bans, litter law enforcement, etc. I have a jar containing a sample of the "garbage patch" (gyre) in the North Atlantic that I carry around to public events and legislator meetings. It gets people's attention, but the Atlantic is still hard for people to conceptualize.

I asked the folks at 5 Gyres, who have sailed the world's oceans studying plastic pollution in the gyres, to help me do similar research in the Chesapeake. We know that the Patapsco and Inner Harbor have a plastic problem, and we know the Atlantic has a plastic problem, but very little is known about what's going on in between.

Thanks to the Chesapeake Bay Trust for major funding, and the National Aquarium, Zeke's Coffee DC, and Campbell Foundation for additional support. Much gratitude as well to Chris Charbonneau, owner of TFMD member Joey Totes, who donated his time and access to his family's boat, Obtuse, for the project.

What did we do?

This past week, from Wednesday through Saturday, we sailed around the middle of the Bay (out of Deale) and collected 7 samples by dragging a manta trawl in the water for an hour at a time. The manta trawl has an opening of 25x60 centimeters, with a 330-micron net attached. It's collecting pretty much everything but water, in 

The manta trawl in action


Stiv takes the net out to collect the sample

Wednesday we had ideal conditions--very calm water. That sample was full of floating algae and a whole lot of tiny plastic bits. The plastic bits look like shredded plastic sheeting, microbeads from facial scrubs and toothpaste, and even wrappers. Stiv Wilson, the 5 Gyres rep, said it was one of the most plastic-dense samples he's ever taken, after 30,000 nautical miles of sailing across the oceans. He estimated there was 10 times as much plastic in that sample as a typical ocean sample.

All those white and blue bits are microplastics, as much as 10 times as dense
as the concentration of microplastics in the ocean.

Unfortunately, the weather changed after that. 

It got really cold.
Wind means choppy seas, and choppy seas mean the neutrally buoyant plastic is pushed down below the surface. While every single sample we collected did include plastic, there was less in the other six. The samples from Thursday and Friday have more foam pieces, since that floats no matter what. When the winds calmed on Saturday, we did see more floating on the surface, or just below, and captured a little more.

For each of these trips, we also took advocates, communicators, and other influencers with us so they could see the research first-hand, and talk about it. We had the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, National Aquarium, Maryland League of Conservation Voters, Blue Water Baltimore, and the EPA on board, plus a teacher, a minister, and several journalists.

What's next?

This week's worth of research has definitely justified additional, expanded research in the future. We are working with the EPA to hopefully fund a larger study next year. We'd like to get more samples to analyze in a lab for the types of plastic we collected, and a sound estimate on the density of plastic pieces in the Bay. I am concerned about what this means for oysters, crabs, and other aquatic life...and the people who eat them. Plastic absorbs petrochemicals like fertilizers and pesticides, so anything that eats it is exposed, and is exposing everything else up the food chain.

We'll be writing a report about the project, and speaking about it to the public and policymakers throughout the winter and spring. In the meantime, check out the whole story as told by social media on our Storify thread:

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The night before the trash trawl

Tonight I went with Stiv Wilson from 5 Gyres out to Deale to check out Obtuse, the sailboat we'll be using this week for the trash trawl. We got a look at the equipment and riggings, chatted about routes and protocols, and especially consulted the weather reports. We also assembled the manta trawl, a 20x60 centimeter box with a fine-mesh net attached that will capture any plastics (and, really, anything else) that is in our path.


We'll be putting the samples into jars and shipping them off to Florida Atlantic University for analysis. We expect to learn a lot about the types of plastic in the Bay, as well as an estimate of how prevalent plastic pollution is in these waters.

We have some fantastic people coming with us this week, from many of the top environmental organizations in the state. (I work with some great people :) ) On board this week we have representatives from the National Aquarium, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Maryland League of Conservation Voters, Blue Water Baltimore, and Alice Ferguson Foundation, plus local and national science and environment reporters, community activists, a teacher, and even Jeff Corbin and Nick DiPasquale, the top two EPA officials working on the Chesapeake Bay.

This is going to be awesome.


Everyone on board is expected to both help with the sampling and surveys, but also talk about the project. Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter to see the stories. You might also like what you see on the 5 Gyres and National Aquarium feeds. We'll be using the hashtags #chesbay #trashtrawl throughout.

Many many thanks to the Chesapeake Bay Trust for financial support, Joey Totes and Zeke's Coffee DC for in-kind support, and the National Aquarium for communications support.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Announcing the Chesapeake Bay Trash Trawl with 5 Gyres

We are very excited to announce a great new project coming up next month!

5 Gyres, renowned for research on plastic pollution in the ocean's gyres, is coming to Maryland in November to help us learn more about plastic pollution in our own Chesapeake Bay. We know our rivers are polluted, and we know of the growing plastic soup in the North Atlantic, but little work has been published about the waters in between.

We'll be sailing for four days from November 12 through 15, on a 42-foot Sabre Sloop out of Deale. The team will drag a manta trawl to sample of microplastics, giving us data to estimate the types of plastic and density of these pieces in bay waters. We'll also conduct a qualitative survey of larger trash floating on the surface.

5 Gyres trawl in the North Atlantic Ocean
But the best part is the team we are taking with us. We don't want to just see what's out there for ourselves--we want to show you! We are inviting an impressive list of policymakers and other influencers to come along and help with the sampling and surveys. We expect to have a few seats left for the interested public. If you'd like to join us, email Julie at julie@trashfreemaryland.org for more information.

We are also excited to be working with the National Aquarium to get the word out about our voyages and our findings. Be sure to follow us and the Aquarium on social media for the latest updates.

Many thanks to Trash Free Maryland member Chris Charbonneau, owner of local reusable bag company Joey Totes, for providing the boat and captaining the trips. If your company is interested in supporting the project as a sponsor, email us!

Friday, October 17, 2014

You're Invited! Come talk trash with us


On October 27, join us in Potomac for a conversation with policymakers and advocates about trash pollution and solutions in Montgomery County, including the pending ban on polystyrene foam food packaging. This is the first in a series of house parties we'll be doing around the state over the next year.

Montgomery County Councilmember Hans Riemer will speak about the foam ban. Other noted guests and host committee members include Delegates Al Carr and Jim Gilchrist, retired Montgomery Department of Environmental Protection Director Bob Hoyt, Maryland LCV Executive Director Karla Raettig, Bethesda Green founder David Feldman, and Choose Clean Water Maryland state lead and TFMD cofounder Brent Bolin.

We'll enjoy wine and snacks at the beautiful farmhouse of Diana and Billy Conway, located at 10600 River Road in Potomac. We suggest a donation of $50 to attend, payable online here or by credit card or check (payable to our fiscal sponsor, Alice Ferguson Foundation) at the event.

RSVP to Julie at julie@trashfreemaryland.org or 410-861-0412 by Friday, October 24. Look forward to seeing you there!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

October means we're two steps closer to trash free

Yesterday, lots of new laws took effect in Maryland, DC, and Virginia, like DC's "yoga tax" and Maryland's marijuana decriminalization. But we're most excited about two new laws the media isn't writing about:

- SB390, which adds points to the driver's licenses of people convicted of illegal dumping. This bill was introduced by the Baltimore City Delegation in response to the City's excellent work in catching people dumping construction debris and other large amounts of trash. The City has mobile cameras; they set them up at dumping hot spots and get photographic evidence of people, their vehicles, and the act of illegal dumping. They convict almost 500 people a year this way!

But if those people go to another county and dump there too, if they get caught, the other county almost never knows that those individuals have a record in the City. They miss out on a chance to smack them with a high penalty for repeat violations. By tying these convictions to Motor Vehicle Administration records, it will be much easier to identify this repeat offenders. Ultimately the penalties will hopefully get offenders' attention where fines may not. Points can range from 2 to 5 points--that's the same level as speeding by 30 mph over the limit or failing to report an accident, among other crimes--depending on the amount of material dumped.

While we focus most of our efforts on source reduction policies, strong enforcement is also an important part of modifying behavior.

- SB781 requires special events to have recycling bins next to every trash can, and for event organizers to have a plan for actually recycling collected material. This requirement applies to every event on public space that serves food and/or drink and expects 200 or more attendees. Counties have until 2015 to revise their recycling plans to accommodate this new requirement.

While recycling doesn't necessarily reduce litter, getting people into the habit of recycling when they are out and about will help capture more recyclable material, and just might make the eventual transition to a container deposit a little easier.

Thank you to the Baltimore City Delegation and Administration, and to Senator Karen Montgomery, for making these victories possible!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Polystyrene ban introduced in Montgomery County

Yesterday Montgomery County councilmembers Hans Riemer and George Leventhal introduced Bill 41-14, to ban polystyrene foam food packaging starting in 2016. The bill is similar to one passed this summer in Washington, DC, giving the measure even greater environmental impact while allowing for more widespread public education and business outreach.

As in DC, the ban applies to foam packaging used for takeout food--plates, cups, trays, and clamshells--but it also includes the sale of those products in stores as well as packing peanuts.

Polystyrene foam comprises a quarter to even 40 percent of trash captured in the Anacostia River. Because it breaks into tiny pieces so quickly, it is difficult to pick up, leaving it to persist in the environment forever. There, it absorbs toxic chemicals and can be eaten by fish and other aquatic life.

Fortunately, there are many alternatives available, at comparable cost. Many businesses have already made the switch to more sustainable recyclable or compostable packaging. But there is more to do.

How can you help?

- Email or tweet your councilmembers and tell them that you support Bill 41-14 and that you hope they do too! See our Montgomery County tab for a sample email and contact information.

- Come out to one of our partners' cleanups and see the problem for yourself. Details coming soon!

- Testify at the public hearing, October 14 at 7:30 in Rockville. You can also submit written testimony. Contact us for more info on signing up and preparing your comments.

- Support businesses that have made the switch. Thank them for using less toxic packaging.

- Support Trash Free Maryland's work to advocate in Rockville, educating councilmembers, businesses, and the public. We can't do this without your help!

Monday, July 14, 2014

DC bans the foam

It's summer, so we'll take a short trip to the south…

In a marathon session before summer recess, the DC Council held its final vote today on the Sustainable DC Omnibus Act of 2013, unanimously passing 11 environmental measures, most notably a ban on polystyrene foam food containers. While dozens of cities on the West Coast have enacted such policies, DC is the first major city on the East Coast to do so.

Polystyrene is a major contributor to trash pollution, comprising roughly a quarter of the volume of trash collected at trash traps in Anacostia River tributaries. It breaks into impossibly small pieces, making it difficult to collect, and recycling is not viable.

The ban, which takes effect January 1, 2016, will cover carryout food containers like cups, plates, and clamshells from restaurants, grocery stores, and takeouts. In 2017, all disposable food service ware in the city, including lids, straws, and utensils, will have to be recyclable or compostable.

The bill was amended today to remove meat trays from the list of banned items. The amendment also requires that the District conduct a study of trash on the Anacostia River by 2016. The ban is not contingent on the study, and it could prove very helpful to demonstrate how effective trash reduction activities have been since the last major study in 2008. (Ongoing tracking of material caught in traps shows trends--like reductions in plastic bags.)

Trash Free Maryland director Julie Lawson worked closely on the campaign, keeping TFMD members informed and identifying strategies for getting them involved. She also directly lobbied councilmembers, wrote an article for Greater Greater Washington, kept the issue on the forefront of social media, and worked with outside stakeholders to either garner support or keep them on the sidelines. The original bill language proposed an effective date of 2018; we successfully argued to move it up to 2016.

Thanks to the TFMD members who were instrumental in this victory, including Alice Ferguson Foundation, Anacostia Riverkeeper, Anacostia Watershed Society, Clean Water Action, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and the DC Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. Thanks also to our DC partners, DC Environmental Network and the Sierra Club DC Chapter.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Press Release: Maryland Improves Access to Public Space Recycling

Supporters of SB781 at the bill signing, including Senator Karen Montgomery, second from left, and Elvia Thompson of Annapolis Green, second from right, back row. Photo via Creative Commons license, courtesy of Executive Office of the Governor.

ANNAPOLIS (May 5, 2014) -- Today Governor Martin O’Malley signed legislation requiring public events in Maryland to provide recycling.

SB781, drafted by Senator Karen Montgomery (D-Montgomery County), requires organizers of all special events on public property, attended by 200 or more people and providing food or drink, to have recycling containers located next to each provided trash can. Event organizers also must demonstrate a plan for collecting and recycling the material. The law takes effect October 1, 2014.

“By making recycling at events more convenient, people will more likely choose to recycle,” said Senator Montgomery. “They may start expecting and demanding recycling to be made more available in other areas as well. I hope this bill will stimulate future plans for recycling receptacles in public and commercial buildings in Maryland.”

“This new law will make it easier for event participants to dispose of their trash properly,” said Julie Lawson, director of the Trash Free Maryland Alliance. “Marylanders are already leaders in recycling at home. Now they’ll have better access to recycling when out and about. The more aware we are of how our trash is handled, the less litter we’ll have in our communities.”

The Trash Free Maryland Alliance provided testimony on the bill in committee hearings, supported by members with experience providing recycling to events in their communities. The Alliance’s testimony highlighted efforts by the Catoctin Group of the Sierra Club in Washington County, and by Annapolis Green in Anne Arundel County.

“Annapolis Green is delighted that Governor O’Malley signed SB781 into law today,” said Elvia Thompson, Co-Founder of Annapolis Green. “The requirement for recycling at large public events sends a clear message throughout the state that this is an important part of the Maryland’s strategy to reduce greenhouse gases by 25%, based on 2006 levels, by 2020.”

“We commend the foresight of Senator Karen Montgomery in sponsoring the bill and the hard work of Trash Free Maryland to see it signed into law,” she added.

Annapolis Green has, for the past two years, helped planners of special events—from boat shows to regattas to garden parties and crab feasts—reduce their waste by recycling and composting through its Responsible Events and Festivals (REF) program. REF includes not only providing the use of Annapolis Green’s distinctive “eco-stations” for special event use, but also providing tools for planners to use to educate eventgoers, exhibitors, volunteers, and staff about the effort and its importance.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Mid-February Legislative Update

We are one month into the three-month session of the Maryland General Assembly. Here's a quick report on bills we are following:

SB707/HB718 Community Cleanup and Greening Act: This is the bag bill. This year we are proposing that all counties in the state receive authority to enact their own fees on disposable bags. Right now only Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Montgomery County have such authority. The bills are sponsored by Senator Jamie Raskin and Delegate Al Carr, both of Montgomery County.
Hearings: Friday, February 21, Environmental Matters Committee (House) and Tuesday, February 25, Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee (Senate)

HB1049 Prince George's County Authority to Impose Fees for Use of Disposable Bags: This is a local version of HB718, applying only to Prince George's County. The sponsors are Senator Paul Pinsky and Delegate Barbara Frush. We are waiting for a discussion and hearing to be scheduled in the County Affairs subcommittee of the Prince George's County House Delegation.

SB394 Statewide Container Recycling Refund Program: This is the container deposit, or bottle bill. It would create a system where the purchase of each bottle and can would include a five-cent deposit, refundable when the consumer returns the container for recycling at an authorized location. The bill is sponsored by Senator Brian Frosh of Montgomery County.
Hearing: Thursday, February 20, Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee (Senate)

HB405 Sales of Nonbiodegradable Cigarettes – Prohibited: This bill, sponsored by Baltimore County Delegate Jon Cardin, proposed to require all cigarettes sold in Maryland have biodegradable filters. While the intent of the bill is to reduce trash pollution, we had concerns for unintended consequences, and submitted informational testimony, described on our blog yesterday. The bill was heard in the Economic Matters Committee of the House last week but was already voted down.

SB56/HB240 Solid Waste Management Practices – Maryland Recycling and Landfill Diversion Task Force: This bill proposes a task force to study raising the recycling minimum standards and reducing maximum landfill rates for municipal solid waste in the counties. Trash Free Maryland is named as a participant in the task force, but because of a lack on consensus among Alliance members, we took no position on the bill. The sponsors are Senator Mac Middleton of Charles County and Delegate Steve Lafferty of Baltimore County. Hearings were held in Economic Matters and Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs on February 6 and February 11, respectively.

SB390/HB386 Illegal Dumping and Litter Control Law – Driver's License – Points: This local bill would allow Baltimore City to add the addition of 8 points to the driver's license of people convicted of illegal dumping while using a motor vehicle. Eight points is the same penalty applied in drunk driving and hit-and-run convictions, and generally results in an immediate license suspension. We supported the bill in hearings last week (in Judiciary and Judicial Proceedings), because stronger enforcement of litter laws will likely prevent the dumping in the first place. The bills were introduced by the Baltimore City delegation at the request of the mayor.
Updated 2/26: This bill would apply statewide, not just in Baltimore City. An amended version (lowering the points from 8 to 2–5) has passed the House and is now being considered in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

SB566 Littering – Mandatory Public Service: This bill, introduced by Senator Bryan Simonaire of Anne Arundel County, would add litter cleanup requirements to all littering convictions. The service requirement would be 8 to 24 hours, based on the quantity of trash littered.
Hearing: February 19, Judicial Proceedings Committee (Senate)

Monday, February 10, 2014

If only butts just went away...

Last week the Economic Matters Committee heard testimony and voted on on HB 405, which proposed prohibiting the sale of cigarettes unless the filters are made of biodegradable material. Delegate Jon Cardin introduced the bill to call attention to the significant pollution problem that littered cigarette butts pose to our neighborhoods and waterways. (In the 2012 International Coastal Cleanup, Maryland volunteers collected 10,243 cigarette butts!)

Making these commonly littered items biodegradable seems like a good idea to help reduce the amount of trash pollution that persists in our environment. Many smokers believe their used butts are biodegradable or don’t substantially contribute to trash pollution. As demonstrated in outreach and behavior change projects conducted by the Surfrider Foundation and Keep America Beautiful, however, many smokers do properly dispose of their used filters once educated on the real impacts. A public discussion of the current degradability of -- or lack thereof -- these filters could have positive impacts on behavior and litter in our neighborhoods and waterways. This bill could serve to stimulate that outreach.

But are biodegradable filters the answer? Maybe not. Our friends at the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project have some thoughts:

All littered filters are harmful to marine life. Regardless of what the filters are made of, they are designed to reduce toxic chemicals inhaled by smokers. A recent study in California demonstrated that the chemicals that leach out of used filters kill top smelt and flat-headed minnows. The chemicals from just one used filter killed half the fish living in a 1-liter container of water. Whether these filters are made out of cellulose acetate or bioplastics, the risks of toxicity remain.

Smokers might be motivated to litter more. Smokers who currently dispose of their used filters properly could revert to littering their filters if they know the filters are labeled as biodegradable. This predelicition was raised in focus groups conducted by the tobacco industry during other studies of the viability of biodegradable or filterless cigarettes.

“Biodegradable” filters still do not completely go away. Cellulose acetate filters use 12,000 strands of plastic to capture chemicals in tobacco. The material photodegrades but does not biodegrade; the sun breaks it into smaller and smaller pieces that are ingested by marine creatures or absorbed into the soil, but ultimately the strands still exist. Filters labeled as biodegradable are made of bioplastics, plastic-like compounds from plant origins like starch. Unfortunately bioplastics are also not completely biodegradable, particularly in the water where the surrounding temperatures are generally too cold to promote degradation.

One option could be to require filterless cigarettes. Filters may give smokers false assurances of the safety of smoking and delay cessation efforts. By removing the filters entirely, we could reduce the problem of toxic litter as well as the public health threat of smoking overall.

Ultimately the bill failed this year, but we hope the issue continues to come up.