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Green Tip: Say no to styrofoam

Published February 23, 2010

Last week we explained how precipitation flows downstream. Keep in mind that as the snow in the Mid-Atlantic states begins to melt, trash that is on streets will be picked up with the water and flow downstream into the Chesapeake Bay.  In Baltimore, a lot of that trash washes into a 10 acre urban wetland at Fort McHenry. A few times a year the Aquarium’s Conservation Team (ACT!) takes on the task of cleaning up the trash and debris that collects in the wetland. And at each event they can count on one thing - finding lots and lots of polystyrene (better known as Styrofoam, which is a trademarked material).  Everything from foam coffee cups to take-out containers to coolers find their way from city streets to the Chesapeake Bay, and unless someone cares enough to pick them up they will remain in the ecosystem indefinitely.  Polystyrene is one of the most harmful types of debris out there, especially because it does not break down or decompose; the cup someone threw out the car window today could still be floating around in the oceans a million years from now.  The good news is that we can all but eliminate the need to use polystyrene by making a few simple changes and exploring alternative materials: REDUCE your use of polystyrene by replacing it with reusable items, paper or biodegradable plastic. Reusable items are always best, but in some instances disposable plates and cups cannot be avoided.  Paper goods will decompose in a landfill over time. Biodegradable “plastics” made from corn are becoming more widely available, and with this option you get the benefit of a sturdy plastic plate or cup and the piece of mind that comes with using a material that is so earth-friendly that it can be composted. REDUCE the need for restaurants to use polystyrene by bringing your own takeout container or asking for aluminum foil the next time you take leftovers home after dining out. If enough people ask for alternatives, the restaurant may get the hint to choose a more eco-friendly packing material. REUSE by investing in a personal travel mug. Coffee cups are one of the most common daily uses of polystyrene. Many coffee vendors now give discounts for folks who bring their own cups to refill, and in a home or office setting you can save because you no longer need to purchase cups to throw away.  If you still need to use polystyrene check to see if it can be RECYCLED. Products are often packed and shipped in polystyrene, and this is something we may not be able to control when we purchase something.  It's good to know that most forms of foam packing materials can be recycled. Read more at esppackaging.com. If you are packaging an item yourself, try alternatives like recycled newspaper or biodegradable corn-based packing peanuts. If you want to do more to help keep the Chesapeake Bay clean consider joining us for a debris clean-up event. The Aquarium's Conservation Team is currently recruiting community volunteers for the "spring cleaning" of the wetland at Fort McHenry in April. Visit aqua.org for more information.
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