We’re “Trash Free Maryland,” yes, but there is a lot to be learned and achieved by thinking regionally. And we got our start through our work on the 2009 campaign to pass the DC Bag Law.
DC is home to just 20 percent of the Anacostia River watershed, but almost all of the actual main stem of the river. When the river became the second waterbody in the nation to be declared in violation of the Clean Water Act because of trash, the District took quick action.
In 2009 the DC Council passed the Anacostia Community Cleanup and Greening Act, requiring all stores that sell food to charge 5 cents for each disposable plastic or paper bag distributed at checkout. It was the first law of its kind in the United States, and inspired by a similar law in Ireland, which saw a 90 percent reduction in disposable bag use. Stores keep 1 to 2 cents of the fee, and the rest goes to the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Fund, supporting projects to prevent trash pollution in the river. The fund earns approximately $1.8 million annually.
According to surveys conducted in 2013 by the Alice Ferguson Foundation and Anacostia Watershed Society, bag use is down approximately 60 percent across the District. Retailers say they are giving out 50 percent fewer bags, and data shows 72 percent fewer bags being collected at stream cleanups since 2010. The law is also very popular: only 16 percent of residents and 8 percent of business owners say they oppose the law. People generally understand that the law is intended to reduce disposable bag use, reduce litter, and help clean up the Anacostia River.
In 2014, the DC Council passed a ban on polystyrene foam food packaging–clamshells, plates, cups, and other items. Foam comprises a quarter to 40 percent of the volume of trash pulled from the Anacostia River, and the way it breaks into tiny pieces makes it difficult to collect. Polystyrene also absorbs chemicals from the water at 10 times the rate of any other kind of plastic, making it more toxic to marine life that may mistake it for food.
DC also has eight trash traps installed in streams and over outfalls along the Anacostia River, which have removed more than 12 tons of trash. The data from these traps, which are cleaned and sorted regularly, is very helpful to us as we identify new strategies to tackle trash pollution upstream.
DC has been a very active partner in the Alice Ferguson Foundation’s Trash Free Potomac River Watershed Initiative and litter prevention education campaign. We are also working with District agencies to incorporate litter prevention into public safety and new public works programs.