“If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you don’t see it. But once you know what you’re looking for, it’s everywhere.”

So says Julie Lawson, co-founder and director of Trash-Free Maryland. This September, Julie led a demonstration in the Chesapeake Bay to show just how much plastic can be found floating in Maryland waterways. That might call to mind sea turtles caught in plastic rings, or seabirds choking on plastic bags. But this expedition was hunting for smaller prey — the tiny plastic microbeads found in many soaps, toothpastes, and beauty products.

Lawson has collected 39 water samples over two weeks, trawling both the Chesapeake and its tributaries. In every sample, she found significant quantities of microbeads. Lawson says she’s found the beads sticking to fish eggs and bay grasses, which provide a habitat for the fish and crabs local economies depend on so much.

From the deck of the 40-foot work boat Marguerite, Lawson joined forces with other activists like Stiv Wilson, who’s leading a national campaign to ban the microbeads, which wash down residential drains and end up in bodies of water. In the Great Lakes region, local and state governments have already led successful efforts to ban the beads after they wreaked havoc on local fish populations there.

Over a lifetime, the average American will generate 600 times their body weight in garbage. Some of that trash will get diverted to recycling bins, but much of it will inevitably end up in oceans. Lawson says she will continue hunting for plastic trash until September 18, with a goal of taking 60 water samples all over the Chesapeake Bay region.

Lawson, Wilson, and other environmentalists hope to convince consumers to stop using products that contain microbeads, which can even get through filters at water treatment plants. They may be succeeding, as more Americans and manufacturers catch on to the growing problem.

“Even die-hard environmentalists didn’t realize they were washing their face with plastics,” Lawson says.