Plastic pollution plagues NY-NJ waterways—and it’s all our fault.

Co-authored by Erica Cirino

Whenever I visit my favorite beaches on Long Island’s North Shore, I look for sea glass. There’s just something about these wave-worn gems—blues, greens, browns, whites and one or two bits of rare yellow glass—that invites me to pick them up.

Lately though, I’ve been duped by small pieces of plastic masquerading as glass. (It’s amazing how closely shards of tumbled polypropylene and polyethylene can resemble sea glass.) In fact, I’ve been plucking up so many pieces of plastic lately that I began to wonder just how much of the stuff New York’s waters contain.

It turns out, there’s quite a bit of it: Researchers from Rutgers University, Monmouth University’s Urban Coast Institute, 5 Gyres, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and the State University of New York at Fredonia, working with scientists and techs from NY-NJ Baykeeper—an environmental organization based in Keyport, N.J.—estimate there are more than 165 million plastic pieces in the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary, a region where fresh river water meets seawater close to shore.

Fiberglass on Long Island beach. Credit: Erica Cirino

For five months last spring and summer, a group of NY-NJ Baykeeper field techs took to the waters of the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary in a ship equipped with a manta trawl, a mesh net named after the sea creature that it roughly resembles. (Both have gaping mouths, but where the manta ray has smooth, pointed fins, the trawl has square, shiny metal wings.)

On each voyage, the techs dragged the trawl behind their ship so it skimmed the surface of the water for about 30 minutes. In total, the techs trawled at 18 different locations in and around the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary. Their catch: nets that appeared to be full of plants, tiny fish, bugs, and not much else.

To find out just how much plastic was hidden amongst the debris, the techs took the samples to a lab. There the debris was decomposed with chemicals, leaving nothing but plastic behind. After that, using microscopes the researchers counted and tallied every speck of plastic they had picked up with their trawl.

By the end of the summer, they’d counted 6,932 plastic pieces. Based on this number and the total area they had covered with their trawling expeditions, the researchers inferred there must be about 356,322 plastic particles per square kilometer, or 165,840,512 million plastic bits floating throughout the 160,000-acre New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary.

“When looking at hundreds of plastic particles under a microscope, you see some bits that are smooth and some that are jagged,” says Dr. Sherri A. Mason, a chemistry professor at Fredonia who worked as an advisor for the study. “You wonder, ‘What was this before?’”

Besides counting plastic particles, researchers also classified them into five categories that reflect their original form: “fragments” of hard plastic, “foam” from cups and containers, “lines” from fishing rods and clothing fibers, “pellets” or microbeads from abrasive beauty and cleaning products, and “film” from plastic bags and food wrappers. Most of the plastic they found was considered “microplastic,” or bits of plastic smaller than 5 millimeters in diameter, or about half the size of the eraser on the back of a pencil. The most abundant type of plastic was foam.

“Everything we found is directly connected to our lives,” says Mason. “We found mostly foam. Why? Because we take our food home in it.”

Mason adds that she hopes this study helps change plastic’s reputation as a disposable material. Unlike most other things that people throw away—such as paper napkins and food scraps—it doesn’t ever fully break down.

Instead, the sun breaks down plastics into smaller and smaller bits very slowly over time. This process is called photodegradation.

Garbage in waterway
Garbage in waterway. Credit: Sipa (pixabay.com)

While small, these tiny bits of plastic can have huge impacts on the health of animals and people. After they’re ingested by small fish, microplastics “act like little poison pills releasing toxins,” says Mason.

These toxins accumulate in the fishes’ bodies. When larger fish or animals eat the smaller fish, they also ingest toxins from plastic. And when humans eat these larger fish and animals, they do too.

NY-NJ Baykeeper Communications and Outreach Associate Sandra Meola hopes that her group’s findings teach the public just how closely everyday choices affect the health of the environment.

“It is important for folks to understand these implications so plastic pollution can be stopped at its source,” says Meola. “If consumers stop using single-use ‘throwaway’ products, the influx of plastic pollution in our waterways will decrease.”

Carl Safina is author of seven books, including Song for the Blue Ocean, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Eye of the Albatross, Voyage of the Turtle, and The View From Lazy Point. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University, where he also co-chairs the University's Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. A winner of the 2012 Orion Award and a MacArthur Prize, among others, his work has been featured in outlets such as The New York Times, National Geographic, CNN.com and The Huffington Post, and he hosts “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. The paperback version of Safina's seventh book, "Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel," is available in stores July 12, 2016.
  • Steve Russell

    Thank you for helping raise awareness about the problem of plastics debris in our oceans and waterways. America’s plastics makers welcome this and other recent research that shows we must work together to keep plastics out of our oceans, rivers and beaches. Steps like better waste management, innovations in materials and design, increased recycling and better consumer education can help. We are committed to making a difference and look forward to working with others who also feel passionately about protecting our marine ecosystems for future generations.

    Steve Russell
    Vice President, Plastics Division
    American Chemistry Council

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