A Plastic Problem in the Chesapeake

Maybe you’ve heard of “micro plastics.” They’re created when plastic products eventually break down into tiny particles that drift in our ocean waters and can be eaten by fish and other wildlife.

They’re a big problem globally, as is trash from plastic products in general. As much as 80 percent of trash in the ocean comes from sources on land, and up to 60 percent of this trash is plastic.

I got an offer from two conservation groups to tag along as they trawled the upper Chesapeake Bay waters to assess the extent of plastics pollution. As an oceanographer, I always cherish the days that I get to take my off my tie and get back out on the bay, so I was eager to join them.

I predicted that we wouldn’t find much. My theory was that the Chesapeake Bay is too dynamic, with its constant tides, winds and currents, as opposed to the somewhat quiet open ocean circulation patterns that can concentrate plastics pollution.

I was wrong.

The lead scientist for the sampling efforts was shocked at the amount of plastics that emerged from our sample net. The tiny specs of colored plastics scattered through all the leaves and organic debris captured by the net was among the highest amount of plastic that he had seen in any ocean water sample.

What we do on land, including how we dispose of our trash, impacts the quality of our waters and wildlife. As an oceanographer, I was taught that the oceans and coastal waters are the heartbeat of our planet. They cover two-thirds of the earth and control our planet’s weather patterns, food production, atmosphere – in short, they make our planet livable. That’s why they deserve our respect and protection.

There are some great efforts underway by EPA, other agencies, and many dedicated outside organizations to stem the flow of trash into our waters. Through the Trash Free Waters program, EPA is developing actions and projects that support efforts by stakeholders to significantly reduce trash entering our watersheds and waters.

Let’s hope that we are successful and I see less plastic during future trips on the Chesapeake Bay.

Jeff Corbin is Senior Advisor for the Chesapeake Bay and Anacostia River. Before coming to EPA, he was the Virginia Assistant Secretary of Natural Resources and before that spent time in the environmental non-profit sector. He currently splits his time between Richmond, DC, Annapolis and other parts of the Chesapeake watershed. When not working, he can usually be found on his fishing skiff exploring Virginia’s rivers.