This fall, media has been abuzz on plastics polluting our natural resources and it begs the question: are we doing enough on this front for the Chesapeake watershed?

California became the first state to ban plastic bags from being offered in retail stores across the state in late September. In the Chesapeake watershed, the City of Baltimore recently played a game of “will they/won’t they?” on legislation to ban plastic bags at checkout, ultimately ending in a mayoral veto in December. City of Seattle, Washington plastic bag policy, similar to California’s statewide ban (Jay/Flickr)This debate has occurred in most of the Bay states and most jurisdictions within the watershed in recent years but most propositions have failed to become law. Only Washington D.C., Montgomery County, MD and Chestertown, MD have either a fee or ban on plastic bags in the watershed.

Following the most recent political back and forth on plastic bag policy, discussion revisited whether bans or fees are actually effective. Some argue that the fees are extremely successful at reducing disposable bag use, thus preventing further pollution. But others argued that a fee or ban is regressive, unfairly targeting people with low income far more than people with higher income.

Both are compelling arguments. Putting extra burden on lower income populations is not an acceptable means to restoration. It is true that an amount of money, such as a five or ten cent fee or the cost to purchase reusable bags—even when the bags pay themselves off by avoiding the fee—means more far more to those with a small but precious amount of spending money. However, free reusable bags exist as promotional items and organizations would be smart to make these bags even more widely available in the event of a disposable bag fee or ban.

And in light of what we know about pollution in the Bay, it is clear that protecting tributaries from litter is essential. Microplastic debris mixed in with natural material on west coast beach. (Laura/Flickr)A recent report from the University of Maryland confirmed microplastics in the four Chesapeake rivers they studied—the Patapsco, Magothy, Rhode and Corsica Rivers. Microplastics are mainly created as plastic breaks down into smaller pieces by the force of waves or sunlight. Most plastics reaching water ways are disposable items that were improperly disposed of, such as bags, bottles, straws, or other packaging that are fated to persist where they don’t belong, in the environment.

A senior advisor to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) illustrated the surprising amount of microplastic pollution in the Bay in a recent blog post. He stated that experts he accompanied described the concentration of microplastics in the upper Bay as comparable to the most polluted ocean samples they have seen.

Despite their size, microplastics can cause a lot of trouble. These little bits, like the larger pieces of plastic they came from leach toxins into the waterways and seriously damage the digestive systems of animals that eat them. Larger plastic debris can also entangle animals, damage habitat and transport invasive species. Remains of baby bird entangled in plastic bag fragment. (Dan Brellis/Alliance For the Bay)One approach to reducing plastic pollution is cutting off its main source: disposables. Discouraging use of plastic disposables, encouraging recycling and use of products made from post-consumer materials all work to accomplish this. But it requires the perfect mix of policy and shifting cultural expectation towards environmental conscientiousness.

Until then, mitigating plastic pollution is realized via other methods. Luckily, unlike nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment suspended in the water, plastics are tangible. You can pick up a plastic bottle from the street or from a riverbank before it completes its destructive path in the environment. Tributary clean ups like the watershed-wide Alliance program, Project Clean Stream do just that.

Stream clean-ups are unique because they work to make themselves obsolete by cleaning sites of accumulated litter in the hopes that they need not be sites the following year. Trash collected in 1.5 hours at a Richmond, Virginia Project Clean Stream site. (David Parrish)Project Clean stream occurs annually in early April across the watershed enlisting the help of over 7,500 volunteers. Citizens who volunteer in clean-ups, pick up litter they see on the street, dispose of their trash responsibly and use less disposable plastic items are irreplaceable in Chesapeake restoration.

A ban on plastic bags may not be the next step for the watershed. But such policies may be a necessity if the entire watershed’s population does not act as responsible stewards.