Our Microplastic Crisis and a Young First Responder

Washington (GGM) Analysis | October 23, 2020 by Noreen Wise

Microplastics have become an urgent health and environmental crisis. These tiny toxic particles are literally everywhere. In our water. In our food. And in our bodies. The five (5) millimeter flecks, smaller than an ant, are made up of broken down larger plastic objects such as water and soda bottles, single-use plastic bags, multiple everyday products that we don’t think twice about, cosmetics and toothpaste for example, even our synthetic clothes that shed tiny bits of plastic while churning around in our washing machine.

Back in September 2019, science blogger Kevin Dervishi spelled out in Harvard University’s Science in the News very clearly to readers, that each of us is a first responder in this alarming crisis. Every single one of us needs to rush to act. For many, the message fell on deaf ears, which has resulted in a continued path forward toward a looming catastrophe. 

As gloomy as this may seem, a bright glimmer of hope shines through the dark clouds along the Chesapeake Bay in Northern Virginia. A youth conservation activist has been inspired and is responding to the urgent call to action. Carolyn Rohr, of Fairfax, VA, has stepped into the arena. 

During Carolyn’s junior year of high school, she followed the advice of her AP environmental science teacher, and filled out an application for the Youth Conservation Leadership Institute in Fairfax County, VA. While involved in YCLI over the summer, Carolyn seized the opportunity to research the impact microplastics have on the environmental health of the Chesapeake Bay after she discovered that microplastics are Chesapeake Bay’s biggest pollutant. This jarring fact was significant. Chesapeake Bay is a watershed connected to six Mid-Atlantic states, as well as the entire population of Washington DC, and serves more than 18 million people. The majority of microplastic particles slip through filters and into our water supply.

Carolyn presented her findings to a group of more than 50 accomplished adults over a Saturday morning Green Breakfast webinar. She created a lesson plan for 7th graders that aligned with Fairfax County’s educational requirements and included multiple activities. Her polished presentation was very powerful, inspiring immediate action. Her lesson plan would certainly be a positive influence for the 7th grade population in Northern Virginia, as well as communities across the country, inspiring increased involvement in acting on eliminating as much plastic from their daily lives as possible by forming plastic-free habits and choices.

Carolyn explained that there are three main ways that microplastics enter the Chesapeake Bay:

  • Plastics in landfills
  • Littering
  • Products that go down the drain

She outlined that toothpaste is a great example of how easy it is to unwittingly pollute our own water supply. She noted that cosmetics are another everyday example. Multiple brands of both products, contain microbeads, the abrasive exfoliant that is the essential ingredient for these particular product lines.

Carloyn cautioned webinar viewers that these microplastic particles release toxic chemicals, as well as trick organisms living in the water into believing they’re full when they’re not, so they often starve to death, and that microplastics also become part of the food web process.

Most importantly, Carolyn supplied valuable insights about what each and every one of us can do to reduce the toxic plastic we’re consuming.

  • Reduce single-use plastics
  • Recycle properly
  • Refuse products that contain microbeads, which shouldn’t be too difficult since they’re now banned in all 50 states
  • Volunteer to help cleanup rivers and streams
  • Most importantly SPREAD THE WORD 

When I asked Carolyn what examples she could provide for how to spread the word, she suggested: “Social media is a great way to spread the word and spark change, it’s one of the main reasons that microbeads are being outlawed in the US. Setting an example is another great way to not only spread the word, but also to encourage action. People learn from each other; the more people you see doing something the more likely you are to follow along, that’s probably why the save the turtles anti-straw trend was so huge a year or two ago. But it has since faded.” 

This sounds wonderful. I’m all in on this!

Carolyn Rohr is a military brat, who was born in Jacksonville, NC and has lived in a diverse collection of cities across the globe, including Okinawa, Japan when she was a young and impressionable five year old. While in Okinawa, Carolyn and her family had a home close to the ocean, where she spent “a lot of time playing in the tide pools and looking at the interesting creatures.” Her family eventually settled in Northern Virginia where’s she’s lived for the past ten years. Carolyn spends most of her time outdoors, and often feels torn between her love of the ocean and her passion for the mountains. “I feel like I could spend my entire life in the mountains and I would be quite happy.” 

As a high school senior, Carolyn is busy planning for her future. She is aiming for a dual major in Film and Marine Science and hopes to attend either University of Miami in Florida or University of Delaware, “Both schools have amazing Marine Science programs that I would love to be part of.”

Carolyn has a powerful message for all of us. “‘Only you can be the change you wish to see in the world.’ – Ghandi. The only way to see the microplastic problem disappear completely is to go out into your community and play an active role in fighting against it.”

Science blogger Kevin Dervishi’s ears must be burning. Young first responders are taking bold steps to help move us all in the right direction. The 18 million along the Chesapeake Bay are greatly benefited by Carolyn’s dedication and hard work to improve the health of our watershed. Let’s do our part by following her excellent advice.

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