Attendees at the Second Virginia Marine Debris Summit watched in horror as the man in the YouTube video showed how to apply glitter to his beard.
Rather than marvel at this flashy new fashion fad, they focused on how thousands of bits of shiny plastic glitter would be washed down the drain, where some could make it through wastewater treatment plants and wind up in the water or become part of the biosolids spread on farm fields. Or consumed by shellfish on the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay. Or join the 20 million tons of plastic marine litter that end up in the oceans every year.
It’s a daunting problem. But big problems call for a strategic response — and the Virginia Marine Debris Reduction Plan, developed two years ago, is providing a road map for state agencies, nongovernmental groups, businesses and citizens to tackle the issue, piece by unsightly piece.
The two-day summit in March, presented by Virginia’s Coastal Zone Management Program in Gloucester, VA, showcased a collaborative and coordinated approach that leaders hope will accelerate the reduction of marine debris. The state plan focuses on the most harmful litter sources that may be the easiest to reduce: plastic bags, beverage and food containers, cigarette butts, released balloons.
“We have prioritized our goals to address the problems we can have the most influence on here in Virginia — and those that have the most bang for the buck,” said Katie Register, executive director of Clean Virginia Waterways. Her nonprofit, at Longwood University in Farmville, has coordinated annual waterway cleanups across the state since the 1990s. Register helped write the debris reduction plan.
The summit focused on the reduction plan’s five main goals: leadership, prevention, interception, innovation and removal or mitigation. More than 100 attendees and presenters from across Virginia and elsewhere in North America shared the latest science, policies and progress in carrying out the strategies outlined in the plan.
With more than 70 percent of marine debris estimated to come from land-based sources, prevention is preferable to cleanup, participants said.
“We always emphasize source reduction, because it is the most effective and the most cost-effective,” said Jason Rolfe, coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine debris program in the mid-Atlantic and Caribbean regions.
While there are laws meant to control littering, illegal dumping and stormwater runoff, as well as the abandonment of vessels, they are hard to enforce.
Even so, Rolfe said that derelict vessel laws can be used to force the removal of hulks before they disintegrate and become part of the junk cluttering the marine environment.
He also suggested that states amend their emergency response plans to deal with the floating debris that typically follows the flooding and high winds brought by hurricanes and other storms.
At the other end of the marine debris scale are microplastics: pieces of synthetic polymer smaller than 5 millimeters that are found in water bodies everywhere. By one recent estimate, there are more than 5 trillion such bits of plastic floating at or near the ocean surface. Researchers have found them in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, in shellfish, fish, sea salt — even in beer.
Microplastics start out as larger discarded plastic items, such as bottles, wrapping and bags, that through weathering and other processes break down over time into smaller and smaller pieces. But there are also microbeads — minute spheres of plastic used in personal care products like facial scrubs and in commercial cleansers — which wind up in the water after being rinsed down the drain, where they pass mostly unfiltered through sewage treatment plants.
Fish and other aquatic organisms can ingest microplastics from the water, from bottom sediments or from eating other organisms that also have consumed the particles, said Robert Hale, a scientist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
One study found plastics in one in four fish in the marketplace.
The plastic itself or additives, such as flame-retardants, may be toxic to aquatic organisms. But pollutants and pathogens also may attach themselves to the bits of debris. Organisms ingesting the particles and their contaminants can suffer a variety of ill effects, including weight loss, altered behavior and genetic mutations.
Hale served on an expert panel convened last year by the Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee to evaluate the risks of plastic pollution. The panel reviewed the most current science to inform legislation in the Chesapeake region to ban microbeads. Maryland enacted a law last year, and other states were weighing similar actions.
Then last December, Congress passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act, requiring a nationwide phase-out by 2018 of microbeads in certain “rinse-off” personal care products and toothpaste.
But the federal law only addresses a small subset of microbead uses, which in turn only represents an estimated 1 percent of all the microplastics reaching waterways.
“The regulation is specifically targeted to certain ‘rinse off’ products,” said Kirk Havens, another VIMS researcher and member of the state’s marine debris leadership team. Havens and others at the conference expressed concern that the general public may think that the problem of microbeads is solved.
Another problem with the law, Havens said, is that it defines microplastics in a way that may inhibit future product innovations, especially when biodegradable alternatives have already been developed.
VIMS has been working on marine debris for several years. Havens’ team there pioneered the development of biodegradable escape panels for crab pots to reduce wasteful mortality of the Bay’s cherished crustaceans. It is estimated that 10–30 percent of the 800,000 licensed crab pots in the Chesapeake are lost every year yet continue to trap crabs inside, where they starve to death.
VIMS economist Andrew Scheld said the value of neutralizing “ghost pots” became apparent after a federally funded campaign to remove them from the water was followed by a 27 percent increase in that year’s crab harvest.
As an incentive to get watermen to put biodegradable escape panels in their pots, Scheld suggested offering them a longer harvest window in exchange.
Programs or laws that target one type of debris can be effective, proponents say, especially when they target the items most collected during waterway and beach cleanups. According to the Alice Ferguson Foundation, there’s been a 70 percent reduction in litter in Washington, DC, since the district government voted to make consumers pay a small fee for every disposable retail bag they use to hold purchases of food or alcohol.
One of the keys to the bag fee’s success, said Laura McKay, Virginia coastal zone manager, was that its adoption came only after consumers, store owners and waste managers had been consulted to design a program that dealt with their concerns and won their support.
The Virginia coastal zone program is trying a similar approach with the hope of curbing the mass release of balloons and their attachments at sports events, celebrations and memorials. Balloons are another common type of marine debris that’s particularly deadly for sea turtles, birds and other animals.
Before launching the balloon-release campaign, planners commissioned a survey to understand public attitudes toward the issue. Most people want to do the right thing, said Steve Raabe, founder and president of OpinionWorks, an Annapolis opinion research firm working on the campaign. But, Raabe added, “you’ve got to understand what’s driving their decisions and remove the barriers to behavior change.” Getting people to change may require presenting a variety of messages, he said.
“We like to think that sea turtles are evocative,” Raabe said, and that showing the marine mammals being harmed by balloons will turn people against balloon releases. But focus groups have shown that the sea-turtle message works better near the oceanfront than in an inland city like Richmond, he noted.
John Deuel of GreenQuest LLC, a waste reduction and recycling consulting firm, has been working with Hampton Roads communities to get smokers to stop tossing cigarette butts, the top litter item collected in coastal and waterway cleanups throughout Virginia.
“Most people we’ve talked to don’t believe that it’s inappropriate to dispose of the butt in a body of water or beach sand,” Deuel said. “They think as long as it is extinguished, they’re doing the right thing.” Changing that attitude, and the litter, requires employing multiple strategies, Deuel said, including the convenient placement of cigarette receptacles, along with prominent signage.
In Virginia Beach, “Beachy Clean” campaigners said they’ve had success reducing the number of unsightly butts in the sand. Cristina Trapani, an independent marine researcher there, said she worked with 15 oceanfront hotels to develop the campaign, emphasizing the beach as an economic engine of the city.
“We wanted the message to be colorful, positive and happy,” she said, so they used simple, colorful signs on boardwalk receptacles with messages like, “Thanks! Nobody wants to feel a butt between their toes.” Preliminary data show fewer butts in the sand, suggesting beachgoers are responding, she said.
Along with reports of progress, the summit featured research offering more evidence of the threats posed by plastics and other waste waterways.
Nanoplastics — pieces of plastic even smaller than microbeads — are polluting waters, experts said, including those from “leave on” cosmetic products not covered by the federal legislation. A single bottle of sunscreen can contain up to 100 trillion particles by some estimates, which ultimately rub or wash off in an afternoon at the beach. Because of their minute size, experts said, they’re even more prone to getting into the food chain and into the tissue of all kinds of organisms, including humans.
Summit organizers said they hope that feedback from participants will guide future steps in carrying out the marine debris plan. Meanwhile, leaders say the Virginia effort is serving as a model for other places, including Florida and elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic region.
“The summit was a good validation that Virginia’s planning process made sense,” NOAA’s Rolfe said.
Editor’s note: The author assisted Clean Virginia Waterways in drafting the 2014 Virginia Marine Debris Reduction Plan.