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PlasticWatch effort in Solomons aims to keep plastic out of the waterways

November 2, 2018

Environmental scientists from University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory are partnering with restaurants on Solomons Island, Maryland, to reduce plastic waste.

With the PlasticWatch project, scientists are working with three restaurants to “make the switch” from common, single-use petroleum-based plastics, such as straws and take-out containers, to compostable and biodegradable products in an effort to keep harmful plastics out of waterways.

“When you use a straw in a restaurant or throw away a plastic bag, there is a good chance it will end up in the ocean,” said researcher Helen Bailey, who studies dolphins and turtles at Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. “Rain and winds can wash the trash into local waterways that connect to the Chesapeake Bay and ultimately to the ocean, where animals like sea turtles and dolphins mistake plastic trash for food.”

Billions of pounds of plastic pollution enter the ocean every year. Large pieces of plastic, like bags and straws, can cause obstructions in the airways and digestive systems of these animals, leading to death. Small pieces of plastic, called “microplastics,” can accumulate in their stomachs and lead to starvation and sickness as they become unable to store food. Animals can even transfer toxic chemicals from the plastic to their body.

The Chesapeake Biological Laboratory is supplying paper straws to The Pier, Lotus Kitchen and CD Café along the Patuxent River waterfront. They will test out different types of paper straws to see which the public prefers, along with providing information to the public on straw use by posting posters with links to the online survey.

Using responses to an online public survey, researchers will evaluate the effectiveness and satisfaction level of these more environmentally friendly products and assess the public’s awareness of the impact of plastics on the environment. Randomly selected participants in our survey, along with the restaurant owners, will be able to participate in a research cruise on the Patuxent River, where scientists will sample microplastics from the water and observe some of the wildlife it is affecting.

The partnership will also educate people about their “plastic footprint” and the effects of plastic on local wildlife.

“We are trying to learn about what level of understanding the public has about plastic and its persistence in the environment, and how can we encourage reducing plastic use,” said Bailey.

Long term goals of this project are to inspire a plastic revolution in restaurants to “make the switch” and clean up our local habitats.

"Our new PlasticWatch project takes our commitment to the community to a new level,” said Tom Miller, director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. “We are actively using our science to help improve our Southern Maryland community."

The PlasticWatch project was made possible through federal funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, administered through the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Chesapeake and Coastal Service.

The PlasticWatch project runs now through the end of March. Visit www.umces.edu/plasticwatch for details.