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Cracking Down on Plastic Trash

Chesapeake Biological Laboratory ­thinking globally, acting locally

“Changing human behavior is key to solving problems associated with plastic pollution,” says marine biologist Helen Bailey. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. Instead, it breaks down into every smaller pieces of microplastic, which can enter the food chain.

How long does it take for a common plastic straw — the kind familiar to customers in virtually every restaurant, café and coffee shop — to disintegrate once it’s used and discarded?
    Six months? One year? Three years? Ten years?
    The right answer, says marine biologist Helen Bailey, is an astonishing average of 200 years.
    At the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory on Solomons Island, Bailey works to apply science to management of the Chesapeake ecosystem. You’ve read about her in these pages as a student of dolphin behavior, including how these playful marine mammals communicate with one another.
    Yes, she’s a scientist. But she was led to action on plastic pollution in the world’s oceans and waterways by emotion. Like so many of us, she saw pictures of the sea turtle with a plastic straw up its nose. Since then, reports from around the world have documented whales found dead with stomachs full of plastic debris, including one discovered near a tributary to Chesapeake Bay, an apparent victim of a plastic DVD case lodged in a vital organ.
    Much waste plastic in the environment is not readily visible because it breaks up into tiny pieces, or microplastic, which can enter the food chain, making its way into living systems, including the bodies of aquatic species. “For example,” Bailey says, “mussels and other popular seafoods may harbor microplastics that can, in turn, be ingested by humans.”
    “Changing human behavior is key to solving problems associated with plastic pollution,” Bailey says. “But changing behavior is often difficult.”
    To break through the barrier, staff at CBL has undertaken what is essentially a public relations and information campaign.
    The first step is working with local restauranteurs in Solomons to reduce their use of plastic straws and plastic-based carryout containers. Wait-staff are encouraged to ask customers if they want a straw rather than providing them routinely. Restaurant managers get help in identifying suppliers of biodegradable paper straws and other non-plastic or recyclable food-service products.
    Bailey praised Solomons restauranteurs for their enthusiastic cooperation and support for the effort to reduce plastic pollution in the Patuxent River and Chesapeake Bay. Lotus Kitchen rewards customers for declining straws with their order. The Pier has posted fliers urging customers to forego plastic straws.
    To this end, the lab and its scientists are working with Calvert and St. Mary’s counties school systems to educate middle school students about waste plastics. Lab staff trained teachers in a new curriculum based on outdoor and classroom learning that will reach 2,200 students each year.
    This summer, visitors to the Solomons Island boardwalk will see the lab’s display of informative posters highlighting the plastic pollution issue and how every citizen can help.
    Funding for the outreach comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
    “But ultimate success must also rely on an awareness and cooperation by a wider public,” Bailey said.