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Lexi Bradshaw has been surfing in Hampton Roads almost all her life. From a young age, she was aware of local pollution.
“Being able to see the plastic just floating around us, like when we're out past the break — it's really amazing to even imagine the fact that people are out boating and just dump all of their trash into the ocean and then it gets washed up onto the shore and animals eat it,” Bradshaw said.

Bradshaw and her friend Molly Jones were out on the Lafayette River Monday with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to pick up litter and learn about microplastics — tiny shreds of plastic that get into water.

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Photo by Laura Philion.

Molly Jones (left) and Lexi Bradshaw (right) both took a field trip on the Lafayette River with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. They each run environmental clubs at their high schools and particpate in litter cleanups around the area.

Both are juniors in Virginia Beach Schools’ Environmental Studies program at the Brock Center. Bradshaw goes to Cox High; Jones attends First Colonial. The river trip was part of a class project.

As they picked up trash, Jones and Bradshaw talked through the problems pollution can cause — like when animals eat tiny bits of plastic, and then larger animals eat those smaller animals and accumulate all those tiny bits. Eventually, when it gets to larger fish or humans, thousands of pieces of trash have become concentrated and can even become harmful.

The section of the Lafayette where Jones and Bradshaw collected trash was calm, with little activity beyond a single rower out in a racing shell. With orange trash pickers borrowed from Keep Norfolk Beautiful, the girls collected bottles, cans, bags and other debris along one of the oyster reefs. The water is warm enough now that the oysters were spitting — a low-tide spectacle of oyster filtration in action.

The Lafayette empties into the Elizabeth River. Once filthy due to agricultural runoff, failing sewer systems and boat waste, the river is considered restored — it’s home to the new center for the Elizabeth River Project on Colley and 47th Street. After years of rehabilitation, the river hosts 80 acres of healthy oyster reef. But it’s still home to thousands of pieces of litter.

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Photo by Laura Philion.

Lexi Bradshaw holds pieces of styrofoam. She says when volunteers find one, they often find much more, because of the way it crumbles.

Jones goes boating with her dad — she said that’s where she decided she wanted to mitigate water pollution.“Boating and seeing people using fertilizers right next to their docks kind of showed me …I'd love to get into the sustainability side of landscape design architecture,” Jones said. “Like living shorelines, living bulkheads, native plants, bioswales — stuff like that.”

The girls have been going out and picking up beach trash all spring. They recently went to the Oceanfront ahead of Something in the Water to clean the staging area — they picked up over 30 pounds of trash, much of it cigarette butts. Jones said she hoped their efforts would create a more accurate account of how much waste the festival left behind.

Jones also said she’s excited about making a dent in the litter ahead of Clean the Bay Day, an annual statewide effort by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Both girls are participating.

“Until joining the program, I felt kind of helpless, like there was nothing I can do to help. And now I can see that … going to do a beach cleanup is making an impact,” Jones said.

“The fact that we went to 15th Street and picked up 33 pounds of trash … without us doing that, that trash would still be there and end up in the waterways and end up harming the animals.”