Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Montgomery County Banned the Foam

I'm delighted to report that this morning the Montgomery County Council voted 8-0 to ban polystyrene foam food packaging!

Rock Creek in Montgomery County, Fall 2014

The law in many ways mirrors the law passed in DC last summer:

- On January 1, 2016, restaurants and carryouts will be banned from using expanded polystyrene foam food packaging (like clamshells, plates and cups). County offices and contractors will also be required to use recyclable or compostable alternatives for all disposable food packaging.
- On January 1, 2017, all disposable food packaging at restaurants and carryouts must also be recyclable or compostable.

The Montgomery County ban also includes sale of foam food packaging for consumer use (like 100-packs of cups you might buy at the grocery store) and foam packing peanuts, effective January 2016.

The ban does not apply to Montgomery County Public Schools, but the system has already moved away from foam trays to paper ones, as of this school year. They do still have some foam cups and plates on the premises, but continue to seek cost-effective alternatives.

This is huge. Polystyrene foam comprises a quarter to as much as 40 percent of the floatable trash collected in the Anacostia River watershed. The tiny pieces it breaks into release toxic chemicals into the water, and absorb other chemicals--and then they are often eaten by fish and other aquatic life, polluting our food chain.

We are thrilled at the regional approach that DC and Montgomery County have taken, and look forward to streets and streams with less plastic pollution!

Many thanks to the Councilmembers who worked to get this legislation passed, including Council President George Leventhal, Transportation & Environment Committee Chair Roger Berliner, and of course our dedicated sponsor, Hans Riemer.


Thanks also to all the Trash Free Maryland members who worked to support this bill, including Surfrider Foundation - DC Chapter, Alice Ferguson Foundation, Anacostia Watershed Society, Anacostia Riverkeeper, Audubon Naturalist Society, Potomac Conservancy, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Rock Creek Conservancy, Neighbors of the Northwest Branch, Hiking Along LLC, Sierra Club, and Conservation Montgomery.

Great work, everyone! Now, onward!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Thank you to all of our donors!

It's been a crazy week but I want to take a moment to say thank you to all of the amazing people, organizations, and businesses that contributed to making 2014 a successful year for us. It was our first full year of funded operations, and we accomplished more than any of us on the board or staff even dreamed possible. And we couldn't do it without the help of everyone listed here:


Want to help us make 2015 even better? You can contribute online here, or join our email list to learn about more opportunities throughout the year.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Our 2015 Maryland legislative agenda

On Wednesday, a new General Assembly will be sworn in, ushering in a new legislative session that may run very differently from the past four years. Even though the Assembly still has a veto-proof Democratic majority, Republican Governor-elect Hogan, a clear anti-tax mandate from voters, and a looming budget deficit have many progressive campaigns in a defensive posture.

Trash, however, has proven to affect everyone, from urban neighborhoods to rural farmland to the fishing community in the Chesapeake Bay. There are also a lot of ways to tackle the trash problem, and our goal is to work with the new Assembly to find common ground on solutions to keep making progress on reducing trash pollution across Maryland.

That said, we are focusing our efforts on three campaigns in 2015:

- Plastic bags. Bag bans and fees are proliferating rapidly around the US, with California passing the first state-level ban on plastic bags in 2014. In Los Angeles County, a two-year-old ban on plastic bags (with a 10-cent charge on paper) has reduced total disposable bag use by 90 percent. That's all the plastic bags, plus a drop in paper bags. It's an incredibly compelling solution to get shoppers to use reusable bags.

As we know in nearby DC, a 60-percent drop in bag use following a disposable bag fee turned into a 60-percent drop in bags found in streams and parks. Imagine cutting bag pollution in our state by 90 percent!

Bags are also a tremendous expense for retailers, sometimes as much as their third-highest overhead cost. If they no longer have to buy plastic bags, and can cut paper bag use, that savings can go back into the business, spurring investment, growth, and better pay and benefits for workers.

In 2015, Trash Free Maryland proposes that Maryland ban plastic bags and put a small fee on paper bags, motivating consumers to use reusable bags. The program pays for itself, reduces litter (and the inherent cleanup costs), and saves retailers money.

- Microbeads. A tube of toothpaste can contain as many as 300,000 plastic beads, all for color. (See those blue specks on your toothbrush?) A bottle of face wash, too. (Those are for exfoliating dead skin.) But they all wash down the drain, slip through wastewater treatment plants, and wind up in our rivers and the Bay.

Made of polyethylene, the beads absorb toxic chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers, becoming toxic balls that aquatic life mistake for food. Dentists even report finding tiny blue beads in their patients' gums. The beads are quite visible in samples from our recent Chesapeake Bay Trash Trawl.

Natural alternatives are readily available, including walnut shells, apricot stones, and even salt or sugar. Instead of washing synthetic beads into our waterways, we need to push manufacturers to redesign their products. Several major manufacturers have agreed to voluntary phaseouts, but their timelines are a decade away. Can we afford to let our fish continue to mistake these beads for food, polluting our food chain from the bottom up?

Virginia, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Hawaii, and California will all be considering legislation to ban the sale of microbead-laden products this year. Like the ban on phosphorus in detergents, these state-level bans will drive manufacturers to reformulate their products nationwide and prevent this plastic pollution from increasing on a global scale.

Trash Free Maryland asks the General Assembly to ban the sale of personal care products containing microbeads, to protect our local fisheries and the Bay.

- Enforcement. While source reduction is key, we also need to get serious about penalizing the people who contribute to the trash pollution problem. Last year we passed a bill to put points on the drivers licenses of people convicted of illegal dumping, creating a statewide penalty system and a more meaningful punishment.

We know that people litter as a rebellious act, in part because they believe they won't get caught--or if they do, the punishment will be light. Bolstering enforcement has tremendous potential to not just stop repeat offenders, but prevent other littering and dumping behavior too.

We are eager to work with legislators to identify targeted solutions, whether it's mandating community service picking up trash, streamlining the citation process to make convictions easier (and more likely to stick), or specific approaches for problem items like tires or construction debris.

We'll also be tracking related legislation as it's introduced, and working with sponsors and other advocates to pass good policies to achieve a trash free Maryland. Stay tuned for updates, and have a great session!

Friday, January 9, 2015

State and federal agencies mandate trash cleanup in Baltimore

This week the US Environmental Protection Agency gave final approval to the state's mandate that Baltimore City and Baltimore County clean up trash that makes its way to the Baltimore Harbor. The Harbor (officially the Middle and Northwest Branches of the Patapsco River, including Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls) was declared impaired by trash under the Clean Water Act in 2008, and local jurisdictions are now on the hook to remove nearly 50,000 pounds of trash from the watershed annually. They'll have five years to ramp up to that level before the plan will be reviewed, and potentially face financial penalties if they can't comply.

Both the City and County have long recognized the problem of trash pollution, and the environmental and public costs of it. In anticipation of this mandate, both jurisdictions have recently stepped up street sweeping dramatically. They are also exploring ways to change public behavior to prevent litter in the first place, from encouraging sustainable practices in homes and businesses, to increased enforcement, to legislation to control commonly littered items.

As Halle VanDerGaag, Blue Water Baltimore executive director (and Trash Free Maryland board member) told CBS Baltimore, "We've all been talking about cleaning up trash, but this really takes it from a voluntary effort to a mandatory one."

Trash Free Maryland submitted comments when the regulations were drafted. Known as a Total Maximum Daily Load, these regulations stipulate cleanup requirements for numerous water pollutants. In this area, the most famous TMDL is an umbrella set of regulations for the Chesapeake Bay, to reduce the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment. Normally TMDLs set a limit for the maximum amount of the pollutant allowable in the water (hence the name Total Maximum Daily Load). Trash is relatively new in the regulatory world, with the Harbor TMDL just the third in the country (the Los Angeles River and Anacostia River being the other two).

Unlike the Bay TMDL, the Harbor and Anacostia TMDLs both scrap the idea of a maximum load and instead require removal of a specified amount of trash, based on estimates of the amount of trash polluting the water. While we're happy to have something to mandate cleanup, the removal approach is troubling for a few reasons:

- It assumes the baseline estimates are accurate.
- It doesn't factor in population growth, or a population that generates more trash over time.
- It incentivizes cleanup and engineered physical structures, which cost more than prevention.
- It disincentives prevention--calculating the weight of trash pollution prevented by, for example, an outreach campaign is at best an estimate.
- Measuring success is much easier for downstream jurisdictions (where capture is easier) than upstream ones (where trash is more dispersed).

The Harbor TMDL document does include an appendix to guide jurisdictions in developing their plans to meet the requirements, including suggestions for how to incorporate source reduction and other prevention activities. This appendix is important, and we're glad the Maryland Department of Environment heard our and our partners' comments.

After all, as the authors say on page 44, "the best way to reduce trash going into the Harbor is to persuade residents not to throw it onto streets and sidewalks in the first place."

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!