The Choptank River. Photo by Matt Rath/Chesapeake Bay Program/Flickr.

Researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science have begun a two-year project to track how microplastics move through the Choptank River watershed on the Eastern Shore.

The project, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Foundation’s Marine Debris Program, will examine what kind of plastics exist in the Chesapeake Bay and where they flow and end up during different seasons throughout the year.

Microplastics – plastics that are less than 5 millimeters long – can take decades or more to fully degrade.

A common type of microplastic -microbeads – are tiny pieces of manufactured plastic that are added to health and beauty products like exfoliants and toothpaste.

Plastic is the most common debris found in our oceans and Great Lakes, according to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration.

Studies have estimated that 95 percent of the waste that ends up on shorelines, in the sea, and on the seafloor is plastic, according to a news release from the University of Maryland.

The research project will examine plastic samples of all sizes to develop strategies that have the greatest impact on reducing debris in rivers.

“A lot of attention is paid to the giant garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean, but those plastics came from somewhere,” associate professor Jamie Pierson said in the news release.

“We have to understand where they are coming from and what happens to them before they get to the ocean,” he said.

To scope out larger plastic waste in the watershed, the team will use a drone with a special camera that can detect and identify different types of plastics.

The researchers will work with a group of experts and stakeholders to make sure that the project’s outcomes are relevant to policy makers.