That last one, behavior change, is huge and it’s exactly what the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (CBMM) is doing. At the 2019 annual meeting of the Small Museum Association, Jill Ferris (Director of Education) and Allison Speight (Volunteer and Education Programs Manager) discussed the environmental initiative CBMM has launched. It’s aspirations are impressive.
Banned: Single-Use Plastics
Plastics have become a real problem for our waterways and the animals and people who rely on them. According to the Ocean Conservancy, eight million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. Plastics are found in 60 percent of seabirds and 100 percent of sea turtles that mistake them for food. And these plastics never really go away. They just break down into smaller and smaller pieces, getting eaten by fish and eventually ending up in our food supply.
The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum recognized this threat to important marine ecosystems and realized that this was an area where it could do something. Under the leadership of President Kristen Greenaway, CBMM decided to take on the massive undertaking of eliminating single-use plastics (any plastic item meant to be used once and then disposed of or recycled) from its Maryland campus by the end of 2019.
But Why? And Does it Even Matter?
CBMM sees responsibility for waterways as a natural component of its mission, values, and vision. How we dispose of our trash directly affects the health of our waterways and their wildlife habitats. CBMM is using this opportunity not only to impact the waterways under its stewardship, but it also opens up an opportunity to engage the public in important discussions about choices we make everyday that either help our harm our planet.
The Ocean Conservancy notes that reducing the use of plastics, particularly single-use plastics, and improving the collection and recycling of waste are critical to the health of our oceans. CBMM’s initiative aims at both of these approaches.
It’s Impossible Though…
A team comprised of people from across all the museum’s functions came together to identify steps that they could take to eliminate single-use plastics. As they embarked on this project, they suddenly were seeing plastic everywhere. They decided to use up any existing plastic supplies (bubble wrap, eating utensils, water bottles) and then replace them with more sustainable alternatives. They’ve started selling reusable water bottles in the gift shop, they created a water bottle refilling station (with the intention of adding more), and they’ve created signage letting people know where on campus they can find drinking water. They’re encouraging their visitors to be mindful of the choices they’re making when they bring food, drink, and other plastic items with them, and they’re offering proper ways to dispose of waste that comes onto the campus.
There have been some unexpected challenges associated with the implementation of the new policy. Many of their vendors use single-use plastics in their products and shipping materials. CBMM has stipulated in its vendor contracts that the museum no longer supports the distribution of plastics to consumers and they are asking vendors to offer alternatives.
Further proof that there are no easy answers can be seen in the use of shopping bags in the gift shop. The museum encourages visitors to use a reusable bag. However, for people who don’t have one or don’t want to purchase one at the gift shop, paper bags are available. The decision to use paper over plastic didn’t come easy. Producing paper bags has a larger carbon footprint than producing plastic bags. However, paper bags decompose in about 5-10 years without harming waterways. Plastic, on the other hand, may not decompose at all and there is significant evidence of its harm to oceans and wildlife.
Doing Things Differently
CBMM recognizes that eliminating single-use plastics on its campus by the end of 2019 is a huge, perhaps unattainable goal. But they note even small changes matter. In that spirit, my family has initiated some small changes of our own, including purchasing reusable water bottles and commuter coffee mugs, using travel silverware instead of plastic place settings at restaurants, grocery shopping with reusable produce bags, and sipping our beverages through glass straws. These are easy-to-implement changes that we can make to help, in our small way, protect the health of our local waterways. Thanks to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum for the inspiration.