The Holiday Hill Marina in Edgewater, Maryland, just after dawn. (All photos by the author)

No one knows how much garbage is lurking beneath the bay’s waters. So I went on an expedition with plastic hunters to find out.

THE CHESAPEAKE BAY—Sailing down the Rhode River along Maryland’s Western Shore is certainly a blissful way to wring one more day out of the long Labor Day weekend. All the sails gracing the waters of the Chesapeake Bay look like flags raised in a pledge of allegiance to summer vibes.

Unlike other boaters out on the water on Tuesday, Julie Lawson was looking for trouble. She finds it everywhere she looks on the bay, though it’s nearly invisible to anyone else: plastic. In particular, particulate plastic. The Chesapeake Bay is brimming with tiny bits of it. And no one knows how much.

“Trash was not a priority issue,” says Lawson, director and cofounder of Trash Free Maryland. While recent efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and its attendant rivers have moved the needle on certain issues, they haven’t addressed one enormous problem.

That’s why Lawson is leading sailing expeditions this month to show just how much plastic there is in the Chesapeake Bay. Through September 18, she aims to collect some 60 water samples at points across the bay, from the Middle River (east of Baltimore) to the mouth of the Potomac River (near Smith Point, Virginia). Lawson is on a fact-finding mission: The ultimate goal of the 2015 Trash Trawl is to assess how much plastic is in the bay, and to figure out where it comes from.

I joined Lawson on a 42-foot sailboat on her Tuesday trip across the Chesapeake Bay. We set out from the Holiday Hill Marina in Edgewater, Maryland. Like Lawson, the other members of the crew (besides our faithful captain) were plastic hunters, or at least, plastic researchers: Stiv Wilson, director of campaigns for the Story of Stuff Project, and Anand Pandian, professor of ecological anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. And so we set out to hunt for plastic.

Plastic detritus can be found throughout the Chesapeake Bay, especially in its underwater grasses. That’s a problem for several reasons. The bay’s underwater grasses, also known as submerged aquatic vegetation, represent a vital part of the estuary ecosystem (not to mention Maryland’s economy). Grass beds provide shelter for fish and crabs, stabilize the shoreline against erosion, and absorb nutrients from and return oxygen to the water.

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement includes a goal of restoring 185,000 acres of submerged aquatic vegetation. In 2014, grasses covered some 76,000 acres—twice the bay’s historically low abundance of 38,000 acres (measured in 1984), but still far off from the goal. Plastic trash could interfere with both the restoration effort and all the good that underwater grasses do for the bay (and for Marylanders).

A water sample drawn from the Chester River. Little bits of plastic are abundant when you look closely.

Take a sample from the surface waters near the shallow shelves where underwater grasses grow, and you’ll find more plastic than you might expect.

Here’s how the sampling works: The trash trawl runs along the side of the sailboat. This one is a “manta” trawl (on loan from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), which is named for its manta-ray shape. A large micro-mesh net trails in the water behind the main manta body. Attached to the end of the net, there’s a catch. It contains a super-fine micro-filter mesh (like the net) that lets water escape, but captures everything else: bugs, grasses, jellyfish, itsy-bitsy shrimp-looking things, the occasional tiny crab, and globs of plankton. Plus lots of little specks of plastic.

Everyone on one of Lawson’s voyages has a job to do. My task during our 15-minute trawls was to track the changing latitude and longitude of the sailboat every minute. Using my sextant and compass—alright, fine, the captain had a digital display—I recorded the location data, which demonstrates the sample’s position in the Chesapeake Bay. Taken with the ship’s speed, these data can also yield an estimate for the volume of water sampled. From there, you can begin to extrapolate the amount of plastic in the Chesapeake Bay, given enough samples.

“The thing to remember is the scale,” Lawson says. “The swatch of water we’re looking at is very, very small.”

So are the pieces of plastic. Stiv Wilson has seen this kind of stuff before: In 2012, he worked with a team, including researchers from the State University of New York College at Fredonia and the 5 Gyres Institute, to determine the source of concentrated microplastic pollution in the Great Lakes. (Those lucky ducks got to sail aboard the U.S.S. Brig Niagara, the hella flagship that won the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.)

The Great Lakes samples—drawn from Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Superior, using the same kind of trash trawl—all contained tiny, tiny plastic pellets. Polyethylene microbeads, to be specific. According to the resulting SUNY paper, microbeads accounted for more than 80 percent of the particles across all 21 samples. After analyzing the samples, the team determined that the microbeads were common to toothpastes and exfoliating facial scrubs. These tiny beads slip right through the filters at wastewater treatment plants.

“Even die-hard environmentalists didn’t realize they were washing their face with plastics,” Lawson says.

Just this week, three years after the Great Lakes expedition, California lawmakers passed the strictest bill yet prohibiting the sale of cosmetics containing microbeads. While two dozen other states have passed similar acts, most of them (except legislation in California and Maryland*) include industry loopholes that permits biodegradable plastic microbeads, Wilson says. (Biodegradeable plastics don’t biodegrade underwater, and fish and other marine animals will confuse microbeads for fish eggs whether they’re biodegradable or not.)   

“We’re not trying to get Clean & Clear off the shelf,” Wilson says, referring to the popular facewash. “We’re trying to get Clean & Clear reformulated.”

Lawson demonstrates the collection device, which features a 333-micrometer mesh that lets water out, but keeps everything else in.

In the Chesapeake Bay, the plastic problem looks slightly different. Lawson says that every sample she’s collected so far has contained bits of plastic. At a glance, the little flim-flams look the same, flat and jagged. Chelsea Rochman, a postdoctoral fellow working in marine ecology for the University of California, Davis, and the University of Toronto, is working with Lawson to identify possible sources for the plastic. Their working hypothesis is that black plastic film used for mulching on farms is being carried by storm runoff into the bay.

It will be many months before a laboratory can confirm or deny the suspicion held by Lawson and Rochman. But if they’re right—if agriculture is responsible for the microplastic detritus that appears to be common, if not epidemic, throughout the Chesapeake Bay—then a political storm might soon follow. The agricultural sector has already borne most of the costs associated with curbing nutrient flow in stormwater runoff (the dread culprit in the Chesapeake Bay’s decline). Environmentalists would once again be asking farmers to change their practices.

(Perhaps the prospect of a looming political struggle is one reason why Lawson is leading a group on Saturday that includes Maryland’s Secretary of the Environment, the head of the Chesapeake Bay Program, the head of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, senior staff from at least one state senator’s office, and staff from National Geographic.)

Lawson has survived her share of political scrapes. She is working first and foremost to implement a state-level plastic-bag ban or fee in Maryland, a step that’s necessary to clean up the polluted Anacostia River. (Such a ban exists in D.C., but D.C. can only do so much.) Her reach project is a bottle bill, or a container-deposit law, for the Old Line State. Most recently, she lobbied successfully on behalf of a ban on styrofoam food packaging in D.C. “I’m the reason it will be [implemented] next year instead of three years from now,” Lawson says.

Yet the focus on bottles and bags, two subjects of environmental policy in cities and states across the nation, may miss the forest for the trees. Wilson offers an illustration. He has sailed more than 35,000 nautical miles to visit four of the five ocean gyres. The popular image of the Texas-sized “garbage patch” is a misconception, he says. It’s not a junk island, but a concatenation of currents.

“If you were to take a perfectly starry night, with no light pollution at all, and you supplanted that view onto the surface of the water, the stars would represent the bits of plastic, and the empty space would be the surface of the oceans,” Wilson says. “Most of what’s in the ocean is 5 millimeters in size. It looks like confetti on the water.”

(Incidentally, the overwhelming abundance of particulate pollution is the reason that you absolutely cannot scoop up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch with a floating 62-mile wall. Anything that would scoop up all the plastic pollution out there would also scoop out the plankton, killing the ocean dead.)

Adding alcohol to preserve the sample turns it pink due to the presence of plankton.

Between the ocean and the bay, the problems may not be dissimilar. Plastic accumulates in the Sargassum seaweed in the Atlantic Ocean’s Sargasso Sea, where juvenile sea turtles grow up safe from predators. In much the same way, plastic-strewn underwater grasses serve as nurseries in the Chesapeake Bay.

The ocean can adapt reasonably well to macroplastic trash: A plastic bucket will wind up as some little crabbie’s home. But marine animals can’t evolve around plastics that they can swallow, and this is the big problem for freshwater and oceanic ecosystems alike. A report released at the end of August by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America noted that some 90 percent of seabirds the world over have ingested plastic. The same paper predicts that 99 percent of all seabird species will have ingested plastic by 2050.

Pandian—the other land-lubber who, like me, was trying his best not to fall off the side of the sailboat—frames the plastics problem philosophically.

“Plastic is ubiquitous. You can't go anywhere, as [Wilson and Lawson] have shown us, without seeing bits and pieces of detritus of our modern civilized lives that are often meant for such ephemeral purposes, and yet may endure for centuries or millennia,” he says. “If you think about the history of plastic, that history has always been about transformation. It's always been about its promise to change our lives. These days, too, we think about the problems that are occasioned by the ubiquity of plastic, transformation is very much in the air.”

Pandian adds, “What do we do? How are we going to get there? I say all this because I think I think there's a relationship between plastic and plasticity. Plastic isn't just about the stuff. Plastic is about the potential change in ourselves that it invites and perhaps even demands.”

Understanding ourselves better may be key to addressing microplastics pollution in the water. Indeed, focusing on local waterways may be the best path to saving the oceans. Maryland’s economy depends on a healthy Chesapeake Bay, which makes it easy to identify and educate stakeholders, or force them to compromise. Millions if not billions of people depend on the Atlantic Ocean—which makes it a tragedy of the commons.

The goal, in any case, is not necessarily to clean up local waterways or the broader oceans. It’s not to get rid of plastics, either. It’s to simply stop putting more plastics into the water. “This is a solvable problem,” Lawson says.

Working from a sailboat is hard.

Plastics ecology is a relatively new field, all things considered. Charles Moore, an environmentalist and sea captain, zeroed in on the problem of oceanic plastic pollution in 1997, as he relates in his book, Plastic Ocean. The next frontier in ocean and freshwater environmentalism will be combating microfibers—synthetic plastic threads that leave your Patagonia zip-up via your washing machine.

In the here and now, Lawson hopes to attach numbers to her trash-trawl project (her current research is supported by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation). By February, she says, she may have estimates for the quantity and quality of microplastic pollution in the Chesapeake Bay—how many microplastic parts per square kilometer, for example, or the ratio of plastics to biomass.

Even for the Chesapeake Bay, the figures may be astronomical.

"There's more pieces of plastic in the north Pacific alone than there are stars in the Milky Way Galaxy," Wilson says. "It's cosmic heebie-jeebies numbers."

*Correction: This post originally stated that California alone passed a microbeads ban without an industry loophole. Maryland also passed a ban that does not allow for biodegradable microbeads. The story has been corrected.

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