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Microplastics – Tiny Ninjas of the Waterways

Posted on June 1, 2016 by | Comments Off

Microplastics on a penny.  (Source:  5 Gyres)

Microplastics on a penny (source: 5 Gyres).

Let’s talk microplastics.  You’ve probably heard the buzz about microbeads by now, the tiny pieces of plastic that can be found in exfoliating facial scrubs, toothpaste, and other personal care products we use every day.  It’s been a hot topic since the White house passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which phases out the use of microbeads in rinse-off cosmetic products beginning in 2017.  So what’s wrong with microbeads?  Why must we scrub ourselves instead of relying on the power of convenient little plastic balls to do all the work?  I did some research and asked my co-worker Chris Burbage, an Environmental Scientist at HRSD, to give me the low-down on microplastics and explain why these tiny things are such a big threat.

 First, some definitions.  Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic less than 5 mm in size that start out in different forms.  Some microplastics start out as microbeads in our personal care products, but others were previously microfibers in textiles, scrubbers used for industrial cleaning, or pellets used as the raw material for all types of plastic products.  Others are simply larger pieces of plastic that have broken down into smaller pieces.   The problem with microplastics is they end up in our waterways where they become marine debris (AKA litter).  Have you heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?  You might be visualizing a pile of floating trash but most of this “patch” is made up of microplastics under the surface. Even microplastics washed down the drain in your toothpaste or from your laundry can make it out in the environment because wastewater treatment plants are not designed to capture these tiny beads and fibers.  It’s not as obvious as a disposable water bottle floating in a river, but it’s still litter and 4 things make these petite plastics particularly nasty once they reach the water: 

  1. Plastic degrades slowly.
  2. They can release contaminants into water.
  3. Contaminants in polluted water can attach to them.
  4. Some of them look just like fish food. 

Plastic eaten by a fish (source: 5 Gyres).

Plastic eaten by a fish (source: 5 Gyres).

So along comes Mr. Fish and he gobbles up what he believes to be a tasty meal but what are actually chemical-laden microbeads.  Sounds bad for the fish, but it could also be bad for anyone who eats him, because some of these chemicals can build up in animals along the food chain.   If you are the seafood loving type, this bioaccumulation could potentially land a nice little cocktail of chemicals on your dinner plate.  In the case of microbeads it was an easy call – keep them out of products – which is exactly why the Microbead-Free Waters Act sailed through Congress.  Threat neutralized.  Kind of.

This Act addresses microbeads in rinse-off products, but what about the other sources of microplastics?  Some are tiny fibers that come off our clothes in the washing machine.  They are too small to see but in some marine environments they are more abundant than larger plastic litter. These fibers can also work their way up the food chain, but how do you stop invisible-clothing-fiber-pollution?  I was happy to give up personal products with microbeads, but now my athletic wear is a problem?!  Check your closet for synthetic materials like polyester, polyester = plastic!  When is the last time you steam cleaned your carpet?  Carpet fibers = microplastics full of those lovely carpet chemicals.  Down the drain they go and like little ninjas they sneak right past even the best of us.

You can read a summary of what we know and don’t know about microplastics in our region in the recent Technical Review of  Microbeads/Microplastics in the Chesapeake Bay by the Chesapeake Bay Program’s STAC.  Or you can just go by my Cliffsnotes version, which boils down to:  Microplastics are not a threat to our drinking water because our drinking water is cleaned using methods that can filter out extremely small particles; however, microplastics are in waterways here in Hampton Roads and they are found in aquatic animals that we eat, like oysters and fish.  We still need to find out how much is in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, how they are impacting the environment, and how they are impacting our health.

While scientists work to answer these questions and we wait for microbeads to be removed from the shelves, we can reduce the amount of microplastics out there by keeping our communities free of plastic litter and limiting microbead use in our own homes.  You won’t find “microbeads” in any ingredient list (that would make it too easy), but there are still a few tricks you can use:

  1. Avoid products containing “polyethylene” and “polypropylene”, which are both types of plastic.
  2. Use an App to check products on the go, like Plastic Soup Foundation’s Beat the Microbead.
  3. Go straight to the source and buy from a local small business that values sustainability, like Chesapeake-based Roses Ridge Farm (one of my faves).  You’ll be supporting an environmentally responsible business and your community.
  4. Make your own personal care products.  Head to Pinterest and you’ll find all kinds of recipes from scrubs to toothpaste

Posted in: Beautification, Don't litter!, Going Green, Household tips, Waterways

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Eco-Friendly Ways to Celebrate Memorial Day

Posted on May 26, 2016 by | Comments Off

Toddlers having ice cream on the beach --- Image by © Royalty-Free/CorbisMemorial Day weekend marks the official kick-off of the summer season for many people. Nevermind the fact that summer doesn’t really start for three more weeks! One of the perks of living in a southern, coastal region is that summer can start as soon as the temperatures creep up to 80 degrees – whether that happens in April or June. So if you’re planning to kick-off your summer this weekend, keep in mind these eco-friendly ways to enjoy Memorial Day with a nod to the natural resources that define Hampton Roads.

• Plant a Memorial Tree (or plant) –  Let’s not forget the true meaning of Memorial Day. Honor those who gave their all for this country by planting a special tree or plant. Once in the ground, make sure your new tree or plant is watered daily until roots are established.

• Donate an Old Cellphone - Take some time from your long weekend to dig out your old cellphones for a good cause. Cellphones for Soldiers gives your old, unwanted cellphone a second life while helping a soldier keep in touch with his or her family. There are over 30 drop off locations in the Hampton Roads area, find one near you now!

• Stay Local – There’s no need to travel out-of-town for a great vacation when you live in Hampton Roads. Visit one of our local beaches or parks to save the gas and frustration of an out-of-town trip. If rain showers cloud your plans, take the fun inside with a trip to a nature-themed attraction like the Virginia Living Museum or the Virginia Aquarium!

• Host a Green BBQ – If the party is at your place, make sure your festivities are easy on the environment. Choose beverages in recyclable containers such as metal cans or glass bottles and place a recycling container predominately so that your guests can find it easily. It’s always best to use reusable plates and silverware, but if you’re going with disposable picnic wares, choose products that are compostable or made of recycled content. Last, don’t let your trash get caught up in the wind! Secure loose napkins and food wrappers so they don’t end up in your neighbor’s yard or a nearby storm drain.

Protecting our natural resources, waterways and beaches starts with the small choices we make each day. Be an environmental steward all year long by making small changes to your everyday routine and protect our natural resources for many summers to come.

Posted in: Beautification, Don't litter!, Holidays, Reduce reuse and recycle

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Let’s End Illicit Discharge!

Posted on May 24, 2016 by | Comments Off

Storm Drain with MedallionStorm drainage systems are very helpful in the way that they prevent roads and highways from flooding when there is heavy rainfall. They allow the rain water to drain from urban areas safely back into the environment and into natural bodies of water. Unfortunately, materials other than rain water make their way into the drainage systems. They are called illicit discharges. An illicit discharge can be any material that enters a storm drainage system other than natural precipitation. This includes dirty water from laundry or a carwash; hazardous waste like lawn care chemicals, oil, paint; sewer overflows and yard debris such as leaves, grass clippings and animal waste. These pollutants can enter the stormwater drainage system directly by entering through connective drains and pipes or indirectly by seeping through the joints of the pipes or street openings of storm drains. Illicit discharges make their way into the storm drainage systems and out to nearby bodies of water like streams, rivers, bays and the ocean. Contaminated discharges can be harmful to the health of the plants and animals living in the water, the wildlife that may drink or eat from the water, and humans that may swim in the water. Illness, defects, and death can result from this serious pollution. Companies and businesses can monitor and fix faulty connections and cracks in the piping to prevent contamination of stormwater. As a community we can also take action to prevent illicit discharges from entering the storm drainage system.

Some possible actions:

  • Pick up pet waste.
  • Pick up litter and secure trash cans lids.
  • Dispose of liquid hazardous waste like oils, gasoline, paint, etc. through your local hazardous waste collection.
  • Avoid blowing, raking, sweeping, or hosing yard debris like leaves and grass clippings into storm drains. 
  • Don’t apply lawn chemicals near curbs, streets and driveways.
  • Use fertilizers and chemical pesticides sparingly and only when and where they are necessary.
  • Spread awareness and educate others of the effects of illicit discharge and how to prevent it.

Not only do these suggested actions protect against water pollution, they also keep our local land environment clean. Recognition, elimination and prevention are key to resolving this illicit discharge problem. If we join together and each do our part this will soon be an issue of the past.

Guest blog submitted by Natalie Prevette, Environmental Intern with James City County Stormwater Division.

Posted in: Clean and safe tap water, Don't litter!, Keeping storm drains free, Waterways

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Infrastructure Can Make the Rain Go Away

Posted on May 19, 2016 by | Comments Off

Umbrella“Rain, rain, go away, come back another day” is a familiar nursery rhyme we all know. Our stormwater infrastructures help make rain “go away”.

But do we really understand how our city stormwater management system works? Engineers have designed a system for removing excess RAIN WATER!  It is called “stormwater infrastructure”

The system does NOT TREAT the rain water; instead, it directs the rain water to a nearby creek, river or the Chesapeake Bay. It does not take out oil, paint, soaps, fertilizers, grass clippings, leaves, yard debris, and litter including cigarette butts and tips. Those items POLLUTE and PLUG UP our drainage system, causing harm to our property, wildlife, marine life, and environment.

FLOODING occurs when:

  • The rainfall is greater than what the stormwater infrastructure was designed for.
  • Storm Surge (the abnormal rise of the sea caused by a storm’s atmospheric pressure & wind) flows up into our stormwater drainage system and onto the streets and land. (Nor’easters, hurricanes etc.) Storm Tide is the combination of Storm Surge & astronomical tide.
  • The stormwater system is blocked by debris, grass clippings, leaves, yard waste inside drainage pipes or at the entrance of the stormwater drainage system.
  • Soil sediment reduces the flow of water at entrance or inside drainage culverts.

Who is responsible?


  • Citizens are responsible to make sure that debris, grass clippings, leaves, and yard waste do not enter the street or drainage system on their property including the easement.  Also, they are to make sure on trash pickup day, the debris is not blocking the drainage system.
  • The municipality is responsible for keeping a routine maintenance cleanout schedule so rainwater flows properly, along with replacing broken or upgrading inadequate stormwater infrastructure of city owned structures.

Stormwater infrastructure looks a little different than your average street, bridge or communications tower. But it’s still up to us to work together to keep it flowing! Check out these common stormwater practices:

curb drop inlet

Curb Drop Inlet
(aka your storm drain)



Stormwater Outfall
(where your curb storm drain sends rain water)



This is not a ditch. It’s a Grass Swale and it needs to be kept clear of litter and debris!



Stormwater ponds – they spruce up the neighborhood but are meant to manage rainfall from our homes!




















Posted in: Keeping storm drains free, Waterways

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Green Infrastructure – Planning for a Greener Future

Posted on May 18, 2016 by | Comments Off

askHRgreen-plannting-page headerWhat is Green Infrastructure?

Green infrastructure is made up of the interconnected network of waterways, wetlands, woodlands, wildlife habitats, and other natural areas; greenways, parks, and other conservation lands; working farms, ranches and forests; and wilderness and other open spaces that support native species, maintain natural ecological processes, sustain air and water resources and contribute to health and quality of life (McDonald, Benedict, and O’Conner, 2005).

Challenges will always persist when it comes to localities maintaining infrastructure. And we often only plan for “grey infrastructure” like bridges or streets. Green Infrastructure (GI), however, now has a growing importance in helping communities improve and sometimes reduce the need for additional grey infrastructure. It serves to work with natural ecosystems to preserve green space, clean air and manage stormwater. The City of Norfolk has been doing ground work, pun intended, as it relates to Green Infrastructure. Working with the Green Infrastructure Center has the Watershed Taskforce Team inventorying natural assets and identifying opportunities for their protection or restoration. This GI  planning provides a chance for communities to approach land use in new ways that keep natural processes in mind.

Unlike most grey infrastructure, GI provides multiple community benefits. For example a protected wetland provides critical marine habitat while also managing flood waters and clearing up water pollution. Likewise a grove of urban fruit trees could help improve air quality while feeding those in need. With this mindset, it makes sense to maintain and integrate GI into the existing built environment and urban landscapes as a common sense approach for managing important environmental issues such as flooding, water quality and more.

Norfolk’s work with the Rockefeller Center has produced an upcoming Retain Your Rain workshop that will demonstrate parcel level stormwater interventions. To you and me, that means things we can do at home like rain barrels, blue/green roofs, planters, permeable pavement and cisterns that contribute to the overall GI of the community. The purpose of the workshop is to demonstrate how residential or private property owners can reduce stormwater runoff and flooding from rain events.

Retain Your Rain will be held Saturday, June 4th 3:00 – 5:00pm with a Resilience Party, Beer Garden & Flood Mitigation Project Expo at 142 W. Olney Road.

For more information on GI in Norfolk, contact Denise Thompson at

Blog contributed by Lisa Renée Jennings, Public Service Coordinator with Keep Norfolk Beautiful.

Posted in: Beautification, Community events, Waterways

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