Julie Lawson, founder and director of Trash-Free Maryland, likes to say this about the plastic that gets into the Chesapeake Bay: "If you don't know what you're looking for, you don't see it. But once you know what you're looking for, it's everywhere."
And she's found it everywhere she's looked during the past two weeks — in the mouth of the Chester River, in the Patuxent River, the Patapsco, the West and Rhode rivers, in the Severn, the South and the Magothy. She's found plastic off Curtis Point, Thomas Point, Poplar Island, Bloody Point and Saunders Point.
But it's not what you might think. Lawson hasn't been looking for the big stuff — plastic jugs and bottles, plastic bags or cups, the kind of trash that floats into Maryland's waterways after big storms. She's looking for the tiny stuff, particulate plastic that you can't see until you collect it from the water's surface.
To do this, Lawson uses a long, fine-mesh net attached to a manta trawl, so named because its shape resembles a manta ray with its mouth wide open. As the trawl glides slowly through water to the starboard side of a boat, it catches tiny flecks of plastic that cannot be observed until placed in a sample jar.
Lawson and those who've joined her on the hunts found "microbeads" of plastic, smaller than poppy seeds, attached to bay grasses and alongside fish eggs. They've found flecks of white plastic and slices of shrink wrap, a strange confetti of human litter that floats through the habitat of fish and crabs.
In 39 samples from the waters of the Chesapeake and its tributaries over the last two weeks, Lawson has found significant amounts of particulate plastic in each one.
Some of the material comes from toothpaste; some brands contain thousands of microbeads to give the paste color. Microbeads are also widely used in face and body washes, among other cosmetic products; they work as gentle exfoliants. They wash down household drains and eventually reach waterways.
Some companies are pledging to stop using them. Gov. Larry Hogan signed a law that phases out the use of microbeads in personal care products in Maryland by 2019, and other states instituted bans last year.
"People think of the big plastic garbage patch in the ocean," Lawson says. "And they think, 'Well, Third World countries are responsible for that.' But this shows we're contributing to it, too."
On Saturday, on her ninth expedition in the past two weeks, Lawson took the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's 40-foot work boat Marguerite to waters just south of the Bay Bridge. Aboard were helpers and observers, including Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Benjamin Grumbles; Stiv Wilson, leader of a national effort to ban microbeads; and Chelsea Rochman, a researcher who has been at work on plastic pollution for several years across the country.
In two samples from the manta trawl, they found more of the same — tiny pieces of plastic that started somewhere in human hands.
"It's said the history of the land is written in the water," Grumbles said, noting how human behavior, particularly how we handle our trash, ultimately spills into our waterways. "This could be a real game-changer," he said, referring to growing public awareness of the Great Pacific garbage patch and particulate plastic in local waters. "It could be significant in getting people to think about the choices they make."