It was a cold, blustery week on the Chesapeake…

Why did we do this?
Trash Free Maryland works on policies to reduce litter and trash pollution–bag bills, bottle bill, polystyrene foam bans, litter law enforcement, etc. I have a jar containing a sample of the “garbage patch” (gyre) in the North Atlantic that I carry around to public events and legislator meetings. It gets people’s attention, but the Atlantic is still hard for people to conceptualize.
I asked the folks at 5 Gyres, who have sailed the world’s oceans studying plastic pollution in the gyres, to help me do similar research in the Chesapeake. We know that the Patapsco and Inner Harbor have a plastic problem, and we know the Atlantic has a plastic problem, but very little is known about what’s going on in between.

Thanks to the Chesapeake Bay Trust for major funding, and the National Aquarium, Zeke’s Coffee DC, and Campbell Foundation for additional support. Much gratitude as well to Chris Charbonneau, owner of TFMD member Joey Totes, who donated his time and access to his family’s boat, Obtuse, for the project.

What did we do?
This past week, from Wednesday through Saturday, we sailed around the middle of the Bay (out of Deale) and collected 7 samples by dragging a manta trawl in the water for an hour at a time. The manta trawl has an opening of 25×60 centimeters, with a 330-micron net attached. It’s collecting pretty much everything but water, in 
The manta trawl in action
Stiv takes the net out to collect the sample
Wednesday we had ideal conditions–very calm water. That sample was full of floating algae and a whole lot of tiny plastic bits. The plastic bits look like shredded plastic sheeting, microbeads from facial scrubs and toothpaste, and even wrappers. Stiv Wilson, the 5 Gyres rep, said it was one of the most plastic-dense samples he’s ever taken, after 30,000 nautical miles of sailing across the oceans. He estimated there was 10 times as much plastic in that sample as a typical ocean sample.
All those white and blue bits are microplastics, as much as 10 times as dense
as the concentration of microplastics in the ocean.
Unfortunately, the weather changed after that. 
It got really cold.
Wind means choppy seas, and choppy seas mean the neutrally buoyant plastic is pushed down below the surface. While every single sample we collected did include plastic, there was less in the other six. The samples from Thursday and Friday have more foam pieces, since that floats no matter what. When the winds calmed on Saturday, we did see more floating on the surface, or just below, and captured a little more.
For each of these trips, we also took advocates, communicators, and other influencers with us so they could see the research first-hand, and talk about it. We had the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, National Aquarium, Maryland League of Conservation Voters, Blue Water Baltimore, and the EPA on board, plus a teacher, a minister, and several journalists.
What’s next?
This week’s worth of research has definitely justified additional, expanded research in the future. We are working with the EPA to hopefully fund a larger study next year. We’d like to get more samples to analyze in a lab for the types of plastic we collected, and a sound estimate on the density of plastic pieces in the Bay. I am concerned about what this means for oysters, crabs, and other aquatic life…and the people who eat them. Plastic absorbs petrochemicals like fertilizers and pesticides, so anything that eats it is exposed, and is exposing everything else up the food chain.
We’ll be writing a report about the project, and speaking about it to the public and policymakers throughout the winter and spring. In the meantime, check out the whole story as told by social media on our Storify thread:

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