by Rebecca Chillrud
March 29, 2018
“Leave it better than you found it” is a motto Julie Lawson has lived by since she was a kid, when picking up all on-site trash was the rule of family camping trips. As an adult, Lawson first became involved in trash efforts through volunteering with Surfrider, an organization of surfers that works to keep beaches and waters clean for use. Organizing large cleanups and heading up advocacy campaigns inspired her to make a career change from running her own design firm to the environmental world.
“I found that [volunteer organizing] would get me to get up at six in the morning and go make calls to people I didn’t know, and get me out of my comfort zone,” says Lawson, speaking of her passion for her career change, “whereas my past work didn’t do that, so it was very obvious [that clean environment advocacy was what I wanted to do].”
Lawson went on to found Trash Free Maryland, an organization focused on reducing trash pollution. There, she worked with businesses, nonprofits, government agencies and residents to reduce trash in Maryland–but she didn’t spend all her time behind a desk. Wanting to understand the abundance of microplastics in the Chesapeake Bay, she went out in the field with a manta trawl (a net resembling a manta ray that is used to collect samples) to skim the water’s surface and collect any microplastics that were present. Every single sample she collected contained plastic, illustrating the magnitude of the problem.
Lawson’s latest project is directing the Mayor’s Office of the Clean City in Washington, D.C. More than a third of the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s population lives in the D.C. metro area, so the District plays a key role in the quality of the Bay. The Office of the Clean City works on coordinating litter and trash reduction efforts across the numerous D.C. government agencies.
Lawson has always been good at breaking down silos and making connections others may not see. While at Trash Free Maryland, she worked on a program that connected litter cleanup and substance abuse rehabilitation in Baltimore. Now in D.C., she works to streamline efforts across agencies from Small and Local Business Development to Parks and Recreation.
Promoting Community and Environmental Stewardship
Involving communities in stewardship is vital to protecting the environment. At the Office of the Clean City, Lawson gets to promote stewardship among District residents. The office’s most popular program, Adopt-A-Block, encourages groups to “adopt” a block and conduct regular litter cleanups. Residents are eager to give back to their communities, and Lawson says they don’t have any problems recruiting for the program.
This local eagerness is reflected in the hard data of Chesapeake Bay Program’s Citizen Stewardship Index. The Index shows that D.C. has the highest citizen stewardship score of any watershed jurisdiction, based on the personal actions residents take, volunteer efforts and advocacy efforts.
Lawson is working to make stewardship as easy as possible by building a city-wide tool sharing library and making sure trash bags are available for Adopt-A-Block participants at every rec center. She’s also planning to ensure program participants are recognized for their work.
Adopt-A-Block appeals to a wide range of people, and volunteers are incredibly diverse. Groups ranging from fraternity alumni to church members to motorcycle clubs are involved in the program. One reason may be that residents are motivated by serving their local communities more than protecting the environment. Lawson sees the broader message of civic pride and community service as a great way to get more people involved. Though these groups may not be motivated by water quality or environmental protection, healthy waterways and a clean environment remain important outcomes of their efforts. Connecting their work to environmental goals can help restoration programs identify more like-minded people and activities.
Progress in the District
Through a combination of efforts from the government, businesses and residents, D.C.’s waterways have made incredible progress since Lawson first joined Surfrider. “Ten years ago, you didn’t see nearly as much recreational use,” she recalls. “I would run along the river and I’d overhear people saying, ‘That water’s disgusting.’ And now there’s lines at all of the boathouses.”
Part of that improvement is due to the success that D.C. has had with reducing plastics, including banning plastic foam products that cannot be recycled and implementing a bag bill that requires a five-cent charge for disposable plastic or paper bags. These policies target plastics that often end up as litter in the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.
D.C. is also protecting water quality by targeting sewage overflows. Some parts of D.C. use combined sewer systems, which transport both sewage and stormwater. During large storms, the pipes may not have the capacity to handle the increased flow, and the excess sewage and rainwater is discharged directly into rivers. The District is tackling this problem through the Clean Rivers Project, which includes the Blue Plains Tunnel and recently-completed Anacostia River Tunnel. The project diverts overflows away from the Anacostia, reducing the discharge of sewage into the river by more than 80 percent.
While this progress is incredible, Lawson still sees work to be done. “My big picture, ten-thousand-yard goal is swimming beaches for everyone in D.C.,” she says. Taking the time to go paddling or just get on the water helps her to stay motivated in working towards that goal. Though her work now focuses more on land, she has decorated her office with a map of the Anacostia watershed and a sample jar from the Atlantic garbage patch. “That’s what I’m doing this for,” she says. “Bring it back to the water.”