Yaron Miller (left) and Lauren Latchford (right) picking up debris at the Fort McHenry cleanup.
Yaron Miller (left) and Lauren Latchford (right) picking up debris at the Fort McHenry cleanup. (Joe Burris / Baltimore Sun)

Who knows where items we discard each day may show up?

More than 200 volunteers who turned out Saturday morning at Fort McHenry know — some of the plastic foam, plastic ware, bottles and other floating debris nestles in wetlands at the national monument.

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In a cleanup hosted by the National Parks Conservation Association and the National Aquarium, volunteers converged on Fort McHenry to remove thousands of pounds of trash and debris from the site's shorelines, as well as remove invasive plants. Crews also planted trees, mulched gardens and performed trail maintenance.

The efforts help preserve a wildlife habitat that officials say is rare in an urban area. Ed Stierli, field representative from the NPCA, said the wetlands were created in the 1970s after plans to build a bridge over Fort McHenry were dashed amid public outcry. That resulted in creation of the Fort McHenry Tunnel.

"The dredge material that was removed from the tunnel made this wetland," said Stierli, 28. "It created a new habitat for urban wildlife that didn't exist before that in Baltimore City."

The association and the National Park Service conduct cleanups on the wetlands twice a year. April's cleanup is done in conjunction with Earth Day, which was celebrated this past week, while a September cleanup is in often held in conjunction with the International Coastal Cleanup Day.

Laura Bankey, 46, director of conservation for the National Aquarium, said the 7-acre habitat houses 260 species of birds as well as numerous species of fish, white-tail deer, snakes, foxes and baby terrapins.

"It didn't take long for wildlife to realize that this was a good place for them to be," said Bankey. However, "because of the natural shoreline here, this is a place that gets a lot of marine debris."

Shoes, toys and balls were also collected Saturday; Bankey said some of the trash will be transformed into a marine debris sculpture for Artscape.

Park Ranger Shannon McLucas said efforts to clean and beautify Fort McHenry come as the National Park Service plans for its centennial, in August of next year.

The cleanup drew participants from throughout the region, including many young children. Many Baltimore property owners were among volunteers participating in Saturday's cleanup. By chipping in, residents receive a $10 reduction on their stormwater remediation fees.

Andrea van Wyk, 23, of Baltimore said she studied global environmental change and stability at Johns Hopkins, and work to aid the environment has become a passion. She was among those taken aback with the volume of discarded plastic foam in the area.

"It's really ridiculous how much can collect, and in such a small area, too," van Wyk said.

Yaron Miller, 32, of Washington agreed. "One cup results in 50 different pieces, and you can see it all over the place. If Baltimore wanted to pass a Styrofoam ban, I'd be all about that."

Lauren Latchford, 29, said the cleanup helps keep wildlife from ingesting refuse.

"You don't want to see the wildlife in the area go away because we're not cleaning up after ourselves," Latchford said

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Bankey said she hopes residents will be more mindful about the types of items they use that become trash, particularly ones that are not biodegradable.

"Generally, 100 percent of our volunteers come away vowing never to use Styrofoam again," Bankey said. "Our message … is try to reduce the use of single-use items and start to use reusable items. No more single-use cups. Get a reusable bottle, fill it up, and use that forever and ever."

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