At low tide on Fisherman’s Island, ghost crabs scurried in and out of holes on a beach still wet from the receding tide, their travels periodically interrupted by a small group of people walking slowly and peering intently at the sand.
The people were a team of marine debris surveyors studying sections of this remote stretch of beach at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
“Small plastic bit! Piece of cardboard! Cigar tip!”
Kathy O’Hara, the founder of the International Coastal Cleanup in 1985, has been surveying beaches for almost 30 years. Her eagle eyes can pick out the smallest bits of trash and plastic from among razor clam shells, seaweed and fossil oysters.
“I wish I weren’t still combing beaches like this,” O’Hara said, as she reported the data to Katie Register of Clean Virginia Waterways, who recorded the findings on a data sheet developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The marine litter beach survey here — and at three other beaches near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay — is one component of Virginia’s marine debris program.
Virginia will soon roll out a reduction plan developed with the help of a team that includes scientists, agency leaders, waste management professionals and citizens.
Laura McKay, director of Virginia’s Coastal Zone Management program, said that marine debris, a form of marine pollution, has always been an important issue for her program. Yet with so many other issues, such as climate change and ocean acidification, it rarely rose to the top of the list.
But a Virginia marine debris summit in 2013 changed that and was the first step toward the marine debris reduction plan. Summit participants defined the priorities for Virginia: Reduce litter entering waterways from storm drains, address balloons as a form of marine debris and gather more data through beach and waterway monitoring.
“There are so many sources of marine debris, we know we cannot get to all of it with the time and resources that we have,” McKay said. But Virginia’s program may be able to tackle aspects of the problem that have fallen through the cracks.
According to NOAA, marine debris is “any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes.”
Marine debris is one consequence of our disposable society. It was ushered in with the increasing use of plastics in the 1960s and policies that allowed ships to dump their trash at sea.
By the 1980s, the problem became apparent as floating debris, distributed by ocean currents to the farthest corners of the world, washed ashore. Heart-wrenching photos of seals strangled by plastic six-pack rings and birds tangled in monofilament fishing line woke the world to the consequences of dumping at sea.
Since the 1990s, international laws have reduced the amount of marine debris coming from ships. But problems persist.
In 2011, The United Nations’ “Plastic Debris in the Ocean” report stated that more than 260 species of animals — birds, turtles, marine mammals, crustaceans and fish — have been entangled in marine debris or have ingested it.
And research shows that most plastics do not degrade in marine — or freshwater — environments, and that plastic packaging and bottles break down into smaller and smaller pieces rendered into what some scientists call a “plastic soup” in our oceans. Plastic micro-beads used as exfoliants in skin care products are among its latest constituents.
Surveys in every ocean show that these microplastics are ubiquitous and increasingly found in the tissues of marine organisms at every level of the marine food web.
The full consequences for marine ecosystems are unknown, but according to Bob Benson, chief of EPA’s Marine Pollution Control Branch, understanding the impacts on human health is one reason that the EPA created the “Trash Free Waters” program in 2013.
In addition to being an eyesore when it washes ashore, Benson said, there’s growing recognition that marine debris may affect human health.
Researchers have found plastic constituents in fish tissue, and plastics and other trash are the source of a growing list of “persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic” chemicals that enter the food chain through the marine food web.
The National Marine Debris Monitoring Program determined in 2006 that 49 percent of the debris on U.S. beaches is from land-based sources, 18 percent from ocean-based sources, and 33 percent from a general source that could be considered land– or ocean-based. Other studies show that as much as 60–80 percent of the trash that ends up in the ocean has come from the land.
“We now know that this is mostly a land-based problem — one that ends up being a marine problem,” Benson said,
Clean Virginia Waterways has been sponsoring Virginia waterway cleanups for almost 20 years. Data from these events will be used in developing the marine debris reduction plan, said Register, the main author of the plan that will be issued this fall.
“If this plan is to be effective here,” Register said, “we need to understand not only where the debris is coming from, but also what we can reasonably achieve.”
Coastal zone manager McKay agreed. “We have limited resources, and limited time, so I want to be very pragmatic about what we take on. We’re looking for what will work here in the social and political culture that is unique to Virginia.”
The planners expect to tackle issues that aren’t already getting major attention by other groups. For example, cigarette butts have been at the top of the list of items collected during water cleanups. But, McKay said, the organization Keep America Beautiful already has an effective program addressing them.
A huge component of the problem is littering — and changing this may require a statewide social marketing campaign in Virginia.
“We live in a culture where social marketing has been used to influence our purchases,” she said, “but the environmental community is just starting to apply these tools to find out and change behavior for positive environmental results.”
The Alice Ferguson Foundation has worked on littering and trash in waterways for years, inaugurating the Trash-Free Potomac Watershed Initiative in 2009. The foundation works on policy changes, regulation and enforcement — the sticks — and education and market-based approaches —the carrots.
The foundation funded a study for the District of Columbia that led to the passage of the district’s plastic bag law. Matt Robinson, stormwater manager for DC’s Department of the Environment, said the foundation helped to develop the trash total maximum daily load, or TMDL, now in effect for the Anacostia River.
The TMDL, which is linked to the district’s storm sewer system’s permit, requires that the Anacostia River become trash-free by 2017. The Anacostia and the Los Angeles Harbor are the first to have trash TMDLs, and Baltimore is working toward one. (See “Baltimore preparing a TMDL to clean up trash in its water,” June 2013).
Maryland has drafted a Zero Waste Plan that seeks to “nearly eliminate the inefficient disposal of solid waste and wastewater in Maryland by 2025.”
Meanwhile, the costs to society are mounting.
Robinson said that a single trash interceptor at a stormwater inlet costs from $50,000 to $90,000 to design and install, plus annual costs of $28,000 to $44,000 to maintain.
Cleanup events provide a snapshot of the litter problem, Register said. The statistics are staggering. In 2013, volunteers around the world recovered more than 6 million tons of trash from beaches and waterways during the International Coastal Cleanup. In April 2014, volunteers for the multi-state Potomac River Watershed Cleanup picked up 288 tons of trash.
Cleanup events also serve another purpose, Register said. “So many of our environmental problems are so difficult, it’s hard for us as individuals to see how we can make a difference,” she said, noting that picking up trash is one tangible — and gratifying — way to make a positive impact.
“Children especially understand that someone else was responsible for that plastic bottle ending up in the stream — that there is a direct effect of our actions,” Register said.
In Virginia, as in other states, the solutions will be multi-faceted. For example, the coastal program may work with local governments on legislation that will empower localities to regulate plastic bags or require more recycling at public events.
Nancy Wallace, head of NOAA’s marine debris program, said, “Virginia is the first state to use coastal zone funding to develop a plan to tackle this widespread problem in a systematic way.” The Virginia plan, Wallace said, may serve as a template for other states.
EPA’s Benson said that his agency is looking for ways to bring industry groups — such as packaging manufacturers — together with cities to look at source reduction. “Virginia’s leadership in marine debris reduction makes it likely that we’ll try this in a couple of Virginia municipalities.”
“So often, we speak of the cumulative impacts of humans damaging the environment,” McKay said. “But I think reducing marine debris can happen through the cumulative positive impact of all of us working together.”