Trash Free Maryland

The most toxic food packaging

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We need your help to reduce plastic pollution in Maryland!

This winter, the Maryland General Assembly is considering a proposal to phase out polystyrene foam food packaging. These are the cups, plates, and clamshells you may see when you get takeout, or that you buy for picnics. They are a big problem in our waterways, as they break into tiny pieces, making them hard to pick up but also easy for fish to mistake for food. You can read a whole lot more about it here.

What can you do to help? Call your legislators, right now. Just type in your address and get a list of your legislators with a handy script, tailored to the legislator. Make four calls and let us know how they went. Many thanks to Surfrider Foundation’s DC Chapter for the awesome tool!

Is the Montgomery County bag law working?

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There’s been a lot of chatter lately the Montgomery County disposable bag law, questioning whether the current model is actually reducing litter or just raising money for county coffers.

As background, the Montgomery County law (effective 2012) is fairly similar to the one in DC (effective 2010)–both require stores to charge five cents for plastic or paper shopping bags at the point of sale, and remit most of the fee to the local government for environmental improvement projects.

DC did extensive research in 2012 and 2013 on the effectiveness of their law, demonstrating that residents were using 60 percent fewer bags than before the law, and that stores were giving out 50 percent fewer bags. The research also showed that the law was extremely popular with both residents and store owners; only 16 percent of residents and 8 percent of retailers opposed it.

Data from volunteer stream cleanups in DC have shown a 72 percent decrease in the number of bags removed from streams, parks, and other cleanup sites since the laws took effect. Montgomery County reductions are similar. These reductions haven’t emerged in any other jurisdiction in the region, so it’s likely the bag laws have created this effect.

Montgomery County hasn’t done any research on the effectiveness of their law, and councilmembers perceive public opinion to be low. The problem is, policymakers usually only hear from people with complaints; if you’re happy with the status quo, do you feel motivated to call and tell someone that? Probably not.

The County law also suffered a public relations setback early on, when revenues came back much higher than expected. We identified the reason why–the estimates were based on a faulty calculation of how many bags residents were using before the law took effect. You can read all the details about that here.

Revenue isn’t an accurate measure of the law’s effectiveness anyway. In 5 years, more businesses have opened. New residents have moved to the county. And it’s likely that more businesses are correctly reporting their fee collections now. Of course revenues would go up.

There are three key differences between the DC and Montgomery laws, though, that could be holding it back:

  • The DC law only applies in stores that sell food, while the Montgomery law applies in all stores. The laws are intended to spur behavior change, and people are more familiar with the idea of bringing reusable bags to grocery stores than they are with taking them to the mall. It doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but that particular behavior change needs a lot more educational support than it has received. We successfully defeated an effort to scale back the scope of the law in 2013.
  • Fees collected in DC go into a specific fund, the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Fund. Funds are directed to programs to reduce and remove trash in the Anacostia River as well as programs to support the river’s restoration. The program got some bad press a couple of years ago when a reporter couldn’t see how field trips to teach kids about the environment connected to long-term environmental protection, but in general we know that the public prefers knowing exactly where their funds are being spent.
    The Montgomery County funds, on the other hand, go into a much larger pot of money, mostly derived from stormwater utility fees. The Water Quality Improvement Fund fulfills the mission of the stormwater fee, paying for rain gardens, pervious pavers, green streets, and other construction projects to reduce polluted runoff into all of the county’s waters. It’s a whole lot harder for residents to see how their bag fees are directly reducing trash pollution. (It doesn’t help that it gets some of the negative connotation of the “rain tax.”)
  • Finally, DC does extensive outreach and enforcement of the law. District government gives out thousands of free reusable bags, many touting the results of the law. A team of inspectors visits businesses regularly and issues warnings and even citations. Montgomery County has been significantly less proactive with enforcement, preferring a complaint-based approach. They also devote a lot less resources to the outreach effort (though they had this awesome holiday video). They reinvested in the program last summer, and began more proactive enforcement, with the plan of conducting an evaluation of the program in Summer 2017, after a year of the new approach.

For that reason, it is still premature to declare the law a failure. It is demonstrably reducing litter in streams, but it could have much more public support if residents and businesses felt it was being implemented fairly and effectively.

Would an outright ban be better? Takoma Park just did it, and we advocated for a statewide ban in Maryland in 2015 and 2016. It could be, and if the Montgomery County Council prefers to try that approach, we are ready and able to help. Both models have their benefits, but the Council shouldn’t presume the fee is a failure when their only metrics are squeaky wheels and irregular revenue.

Getting clean, inside and out

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A key step of social marketing is understanding your target audience, the people you want to adopt your desired behavior. Second to that is understanding the midstream audience, the people your target audience trusts, who can serve as messengers of your campaign.

The target audience in the first phase of our Trash Free Baltimore campaign is not going to come to a community meeting. We can’t just teach them that litter is bad; they know that, but they have little motivation to do anything about it. So our job is to go where they are.

We learned in focus groups that a lot of them are working through recovery from substance abuse. They are trying to be involved parents. They are trying to find and keep jobs, and they are going to church. Some have spent time in prison and are adjusting to being back home. That’s our road map for where to go, to find the people they trust.

We’ve begun a wonderful relationship with Institutes for Behavior Resources, in Baltimore’s Old Goucher neighborhood. They provide treatment for drug addiction, including methadone, as well as wraparound health services. Their patients visit regularly, even daily, for treatment and counseling. The patients feel deeply connected to the clinic, and to each other. IBR’s director of REACH Health Services, Vickie Walters, says that some patients offer to help clean up the building and sidewalk outside when they know visitors are coming.

We are working with Vickie, Dr. Yngvild Olsen, and the clinical team at IBR and REACH to develop tools for counselors and patients to use to encourage adoption of picking up litter. We’re providing counselors with information to talk about litter in their sessions with patients–that patients can feel a sense of accomplishment and connection to neighbors by picking up litter outside their homes. Counselors will describe picking up litter as a form of self-care, a key part of the recovery process. Meanwhile, with our friends at Baltimore Clean Corps, we are training block captains around the city to notice when new people are taking action to clean up outside their homes, and thank them, providing important positive reinforcement and a sense of community.

This direct outreach will be supported by posters in the clinic, reminding people to pick up. Finally, the Central Baltimore Partnership and nearby community associations will distribute window signs to businesses and residents to encourage everyone to participate, and help everyone feel like they are on the same team. They are even planning a spring cleanup with local residents and clinic patients to give the neighborhood a deep clean.

While we assess litter levels, the clinic is going to look at health outcomes. Do patients who adopt the behavior have more success in their treatment?

We are talking to several other clinics about the campaign and how to get involved. We’re also working to build relationships with family support services, job resource centers, dialysis centers, faith-based organizations, and other partners that serve as mentors in the community. We are so grateful to all the clinics for their interest in this novel approach, and can’t wait to see how it works!

How dirty are Baltimore streets?

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When you’re walking around a neighborhood, have you ever noticed how one block might be clean and the next is littered with trash? Or one side of the street is different from the other?

With support from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, we hired five interns to help us conduct a litter audit in five neighborhoods of Baltimore. The interns are each assigned to one neighborhood, and walk a route through a residential area once a week, on the same day and time. They grade both sides of each block for the amount of litter, with a 1 being a clean street and sidewalk, and a 4 being totally trashed. This scale is also used in Philadelphia and by the Healthy Harbor initiative, so the data is comparable to other surveys.

They started in September and October and will continue working until the end of March, when we will analyze all the data and try to identify trends. They are keeping track of vacant properties, schools, green spaces, and other features along the route, as well as collection and street sweeping days, weather, and community events that might affect litter levels. As our social marketing campaign rolls out, we hope to see improvements reflected in this data.

Charles Graham, a recent graduate of Ben Franklin High School in Brooklyn, emailed me recently because his neighborhood suddenly seemed much cleaner than it had been, and he didn’t know why. Without these weekly observations, we might never notice fluctuations like this, but now we are motivated to figure out why.

Tricia Christensen is a masters candidate at Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She’s been walking Baltimore Highlands since September and says, “I moved to Baltimore to work on a graduate degree in public policy, and while I never intended to get involved in litter/trash policy, I couldn’t help but notice the need around the city. When walking around my assigned neighborhood, I am still surprised at the amount of new trash not only blown to the edges of the roads and into the gutters, but also scattered on the sidewalk from individuals casually dropping their trash as they walk along.”

Colson Campbell, also an MPP candidate at Bloomberg, says the weekly walks in Mondawmin have introduced her community members she wouldn’t have otherwise met: “I’ve heard their suggestions on how to keep their community clean. I also really love the city of Baltimore and believe this project is dedicated to keeping our city clean, which I really appreciate.”

Photo by Louis Kay, during a walk in Waverly.

What motivates you to pick up litter?

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Earlier this year, we held focus groups in five neighborhoods of Baltimore. We wanted to learn about how people feel about their neighborhoods, about the litter there, and about what we could to get them more involved in cleaning it up.

With the help of OpinionWorks, a Maryland research firm with extensive environmental and public health experience, we gathered residents from Baltimore Highlands, Brooklyn/Curtis Bay, McElderry Park, Mondawmin, and Waverly to talk trash in focus groups. We also recruited Port employees for a focus group at the terminal. We specifically recruited participants who were not active with civic associations, and who said they may litter sometimes and are unlikely to pick up litter. A moderator used a discussion guide to encourage conversation among the residents that was friendly and free-flowing, but that could be compared across the groups.

Of the 34 people who participated in the groups, we heard many talk about their struggles in daily life. Many spoke of their personal paths of recovery, whether from substance abuse, incarceration, unemployment, or health issues. They also spoke about how neighborhoods with less litter exhibited a sense of self-respect, and they wanted that well-being for their own communities. They agreed that picking up litter is a simple activity that can give a sense of accomplishment and well-being for their neighborhood, and for themselves personally.

We also asked them why they don’t pick up litter, and what would motivate them to start. They talked about germs and filth, and even exposure to needles and harmful items. But they also said it felt futile to do alone; there was so much, and they are only one person. Setting a realistic limit and demonstrating that they are part of a community would help them adopt the behavior.

We also heard in these groups, and in past research, that people don’t litter in places where they feel personally connected–their mother’s house, church, and so on. Can we give people a sense of accomplishment, reconnect neighbors, and clean up litter all at the same time?

This process was the beginning of developing a social marketing campaign. Social marketing is a scientific process to change behavior, using marketing principles to “sell” the desired behavior to a specific audience. After reviewing the results of this research, we are designing a campaign to work with these “disengaged” individuals to pick up litter around their homes, or other places they feel personally connected to. We are calling it Trash Free Baltimore, and we are so excited to roll it out in 2017!

To read the whole report, click here.

Thanks to the Baltimore Community Foundation, Blue Water Baltimore, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Chesapeake Bay Trust, Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, Maryland Port Administration, NOAA Marine Debris Program, and corporate assistance for funding support for this project. We welcome your support as well; click here to contribute.

Apply to intern with us in Baltimore

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Trash Free Maryland seeks 5 interns for a six-month pilot project to reduce litter in Baltimore. We expect the project to run September 1 through February 28, with analysis in March 2017. Stipends are available.

In September we are going to start rolling out a litter prevention campaign in 5 neighborhoods in Baltimore (Baltimore Highlands, Brooklyn/Curtis Bay, McElderry Park, Mondawmin, and Waverly). In order to gauge the effectiveness of the campaign tools, we are going to conduct three different evaluation methods:

– weekly visual grading by block captains
– ongoing interviews with block captains by the project team
– weekly visual grading by a 3rd party

We are seeking individuals to be part of that 3rd party, to visit their assigned neighborhood once a week (at a set time each week), evaluate and document levels of litter and other conditions, and report back to project managers. At the end of six months, you will help analyze the data. Interns will learn about the community’s relationship with trash, social marketing concepts, evaluation methods, and have the opportunity to help us develop a plan to take the campaign citywide in 2017.

Interns must commit to the full project term, be reliable, available at a set time each week regardless of weather, able to work independently, and detail oriented. Interns must provide their own transportation. Weekly time commitment is approximately 3 hours.

To apply, submit your resume and a cover letter explaining why you are right for this project and which neighborhood, if any, you prefer to work in and why. To submit applications, or if you have questions, contact Julie Lawson at julie@trashfreemaryland.org. Applications are due August 30 September 10 (extended!).

Help us track the #ECtreasures

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Remember the rubber duckies that were lost from a barge in the Pacific Ocean in 1992? The floating toys have since been found all over the world, demonstrating the connectivity of currents in the oceans and putting a cute squeaky face on the problem of plastic pollution.

On July 30, flash floods hit Ellicott City in Howard County and devastated the historic Main Street. The flood waters, from six inches of rain in just two hours, damaged or destroyed more than 200 buildings. Cleanup is underway and disaster relief is coming, but the mess in the Patapsco River remains. Mary Catherine Cochran, executive director of the Patapsco Heritage Greenway, described the debris like this:

I was in a briefing on Monday morning after the Saturday night flood and was shown a photo of an Ellicott Mills Brewery keg that had washed up on the shores of Fort McHenry. Not everything moves as fast. The river between Ellicott City and Bloede Dam–and even beyond is still full of large and small debris. Log jams, cars swept away by the flood, little tiny Christmas figurines that floated out of shops on their styrofoam rafts. It is a daunting project that will require state and federal intervention. At this point the E. coli levels are still astronomically high in the river from multiple spills and so access to remove the debris must be limited. DNR has closed the park while they wrestle with this issue and we’ll know more about their approach within the week.

Those figurines came from a couple of shops on Main Street shop called Discoveries (edited August 15). Stream Watcher John Merryman found one Tuesday near the Route 1 bridge (5-6 miles away), indicating they are making their way downstream and will likely turn up in other places soon.

More than 80 turned up under the Ilchester Road bridge on July 31, August 5, and August 7.

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Main Street, Ellicott City is in the upper left corner. More than 80 figurines were found under the Ilchester Road bridge (the middle dot), and another one 5 miles downstream at Route 1 (bottom right). Map: Google.

We’re putting out the call on social media: If you find one of these, can you take a picture of it and post it with the tag #ECtreasures? We’ll get a Google Map going showing where they turn up and when, and maybe we can learn something about the flow of the whole debris field. You can tag us with @TrashFreeMD on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

MoCo steps up the Bag Law

On Saturday, June 18, Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection announced new programming to support the county’s 4-year-old disposable bag law.

Bag_in_treeThe law, which took effect in 2012, requires all retailers in the county to charge five cents for each plastic and paper bag distributed at checkout. The charge encourages shoppers to bring reusable bags and reduce the amount of disposable bags that wind up as litter in the county’s neighborhoods and waterways. It’s working: volunteers at stream cleanups are finding 72 percent fewer bags since the law took effect!

To this point, the county has primarily relied on resident complaints about businesses that don’t charge the fee; the businesses then receive a letter educating them about the law. Starting this summer, the county will be more proactive, distributing new point-of-sale cards and posters to remind shoppers to bring their own bags, and identifying retailers that are not complying in order to offer more targeted training. The county is also giving away more free reusable bags to residents who need them.

Surveys in Washington, DC, where a similar law has been in place since 2010, show that business owners view the law very favorably, particularly because of the savings they see by buying fewer disposable bags. Shoppers generally understand that the charge is a reminder to skip disposable bags, and like that the funds are used to prevent pollution in the Anacostia River.

When did we become a plastic society?

Take a couple of minutes and check out this great video by Jeff Bridges for the Plastic Pollution Coalition. Share the video with your friends, and then get involved with us to make a difference right here in Maryland!

What are you giving up for Lent?

Together with Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake and faith leaders around the state, we are calling on Marylanders to fast from plastic bags in the coming season of Lent. People of the Christian faith often practice fasting to reflect on changes they want to make in their lives. We encourage people of all backgrounds to take these 40 days to consider our throwaway culture and simple steps you can take to protect your community and the environment. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, February 10, and runs until Easter on March 27.

To inspire you, we’re holding a rally on February 9…Mardi Gras! Join us in front of the State House at 9 am. Faith leaders from Prince George’s, Anne Arundel, and Baltimore will speak about protecting our common home. We’ll have reusable bags, of course, along with festive beads and king cake. Need a ride from Baltimore? Get on the bus!

“For many Christians celebrating Lent, they’re preparing to journey with their God and reflect on the changes they want to make in their lives, said Jodi Rose, Executive Director of Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake. “Fasting is one practice that draws them into that journey. We’re challenging Christians to fast from plastic bags this year–and many are embracing this! We live in a throwaway culture that threatens all of Creation. This Lent, we’re asking people to reflect on that throwaway culture, their role in it, and how they can be a witness to God’s desire that we treasure the sacred around us.”

In response to calls from Maryland businesses and a growing awareness of the problems of plastic pollution, Delegate Brooke Lierman (D-Baltimore City) and Senator Victor Ramirez (D-Prince George’s County) introduced the Community Cleanup and Greening Act in the 2016 session of the Maryland General Assembly.

“It is rare to find a bill that will save businesses and consumers money, while also providing an immeasurable environmental benefit, and the Community Cleanup and Greening Act does just that,” said Delegate Lierman. “I’m so pleased to be sponsoring this urgently needed legislation. The time to help our businesses and save our struggling waters is now, and I am hopeful that the General Assembly will pass this bill this year.”

The Community Cleanup and Greening Act bans plastic shopping bags at checkout. According to cleanup data, plastic bags comprise as much as half the trash polluting Maryland waterways, and they are among the most visible forms of street litter, blowing down sidewalks and tangling in trees and fences. Many Maryland counties have stopped accepting plastic bags in residential recycling programs.

To encourage shoppers to use reusable bags, the bill also requires stores to charge 10 cents for each paper bag. Financial disincentives have successfully changed consumer behavior in other cities and counties, including Washington, DC, and Los Angeles County, California. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, a typical store distributed 2.2 million disposable bags per year before their ordinance took effect in 2011. Beginning in the first month of the law, the same store distributed bags at a rate of 125,000 per year. (That’s a 95% decrease!)

Public hearings on the bill (HB 31, SB 57) are scheduled for February 2 and February 10.