by Kristen Foringer
March 31, 2011
Many residents of the Chesapeake Bay region know that what they do on land has a direct effect on the Bay's health. But what lots of people don't know is that some of their everyday actions are actually major contributors of pollution.
The good news is that small changes in your daily activities can make a big difference. Consider the amount of people who live in our region. If each of the nearly 17 million Chesapeake Bay watershed residents changed one of the behaviors listed below, imagine how much it could help the Bay's health!
Here are five ways you may be hurting the Chesapeake Bay, and not even know it.
1. Over-fertilizing your lawn
There is an unspoken competition in almost every neighborhood to have the best yard on the block. Everyone wants to hear their neighbors say, "Your flowers look so beautiful!" or ask, "How did your get your grass so green?" People often use large amounts of fertilizer and pest control products to get these results, ignoring the instructions provided on the packaging.
Excess fertilizer doesn't make your lawn extra green. It just gets washed off the grass during rain storms. This polluted runoff makes its way to the nearest storm drain, and then into your local creek or river, which eventually empties into the Bay. Fertilizer and pest control products contribute to "dead zones" that form in the Bay each summer: large areas of the Bay where fish, crabs and other life are unable to exist.
To reduce your yard's impact, limit fertilizing your yard to the fall months, when fewer rain storms allow fertilizer to stay on your lawn. Also, carefully follow product instructions so you don't apply more fertilizer than you need. Finally, pick plants that are native to your area; they require little to no fertilizer or pest control.
For more tips, check out the Plant More Plants campaign.
2. Not picking up after your pets (even in your own backyard)
The one thing that most dog owners can agree on is how much they dislike picking up after their pets. Although most people hold their noses and pick up the waste, some give a few glances around them to see if anyone is watching and keep on walking. They may not know the harm they are doing to their local waterway and the Chesapeake Bay.
In addition to the risk of people stepping in the ignored waste (yuck!), another issue is that pet waste contains harmful nutrients, bacteria (like salmonella) and parasites (like roundworms). Just like fertilizer, runoff can pickup these harmful pollutants and send them straight into storm drains and local streams. Bacteria from pet waste can collect in water bodies, potentially causing infections and bacterial diseases in the people and animals that swim there. Who wants to eat a fish or crab that has been swimming in fecal matter?
Pet waste should be thrown away, flushed, or put in a pet waste composter. Do your part and pick up after your pet. It stinks, but we all need to do it for a clean Bay.
3. Washing your car
Spring is just around the corner, which means it is time to wash off all the salt and grime your car picked up during the harsh winter months. I bet many of you will think, "What a beautiful spring day. "I'm going to wash my car in the driveway." Think again! Washing your car the old-fashioned way, with a hose and bucket, can actually be very harmful to the environment.
Homeowners use an average of 116 gallons of water to clean their cars, while commercial carwashes use about 60 percent less. Additionally, you may think you are simply removing dirt and bird droppings, but motor oil, exhaust residue, heavy metals from rust and other possibly toxic substances will come off in your car wash. All of this, plus the soap you are using, will flow untreated down your street or driveway into the storm drain.
One way to reduce your impact and still have a clean car is to take it to a professional car wash. There, water is reused several times before it is sent to a treatment plant to be cleaned.
You can still wash you car at home, too. If you do, make sure to use a biodegradable, phosphate-free detergent. Also, wash your car on gravel or grass instead of on pavement. This gives water a chance to be absorbed and naturally filtered through the soil. And be sure to empty your wash bucket into a sink or toilet.
For more information on washing your car the Bay-friendly way, check out this pamphlet from the Environmental Protection Agency.
4. Using plastic bags
Remember when you used to be asked, "Paper or plastic?" at the grocery store? Well, we have a third option for you: reusable! Plastic bags are a huge source of trash pollution in the Chesapeake Bay's local rivers and streams. Most bags are used only once to carry purchases from one location to another, and then they are thrown away.
Not only is plastic bag trash unsightly, but the bags can harm animals who try to eat them or get trapped inside of them. And even if you throw them away, plastic bags can take 1,000 years to break down in the environment.
A number of cities and states have passed or are considering fees for plastic bag use. The most well-know is the District of Columbia, which launched its Skip the Bag, Save the River campaign to help clean up the Anacostia River. Maryland may create a similar law that would charge residents for each plastic bag they use.
So why not be ahead of the curve and start using reusable bags? They come in all sizes and colors. Many can even fold down to fit in a purse or glove compartment, making it easy for you to stash them away for your next trip to the store.
If you forget your reusable bags and have to use plastic, make sure you recycle your bags. Most local grocery stores have plastic bag recycling stations, as well as reusable bags for sale.
5. Driving too much
People have been told many reasons why they need to reduce the amount of time they spend behind the wheel. "You will get more exercise if you walk." "It will save you money on gas." But what about saving the Chesapeake Bay?
Pollution from air accounts for nearly one-third of the nitrogen pollution in the Bay, and vehicles are a large part of that. Like anything else released into the air, exhaust pollution will eventually come back down to the ground. Exhaust from cars also produces polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. When these toxic chemicals make their way into the water, they attach to sediment particles and can harm oysters, plankton and some species of fish. PAHs are thought cause cancerous tumors in catfish and other bottom-dwelling fish. Learn more about chemical contaminants here.
So help the health of animals and humans living in our region by driving less. Carpool to work, use public transportation or combine shopping trips.
For more ways to help, read our How To's and Tips page.