Plastic remains No. 1 pollutant on Jersey coast
Plastic remains the No. 1 pollutant along the Jersey coast, according to Clean Ocean Action’s (COA) 26th Annual Beach Sweeps Report, released at an April 11 press conference at the Sea Gulls’ Nest on Sandy Hook.
More than 7,500 people participated in the 2011 Beach Sweeps and collected 452,698 pieces of marine debris that had washed up in 65 locations along the Jersey Shore, from Sandy Hook to Cape May Point.
“Some of the trends noted in the data and in our research were the rise of plastic pieces as well as the drastic decrease of cigarette filters and other cigarette-related products,” said Tavia Danch, education coordinator for pollution prevention for COA.
“The problem with plastics is that it does not biodegrade. Plastic photodegrades through a combination of chemical reactions and physical forces, including sunlight and waves, and slowly breaks down into tiny, tiny pieces,” explained Danch. “As they break down, they actually release toxic chemicals into the sea. Not only are they releasing these chemicals, but they become smaller and smaller, so it makes it more and more difficult to remove these pieces from the environment, and [it’s] more and more damaging to the water quality, on our wildlife and on our recreation.”
In addition to being an environmental concern, Danch said that it becomes a public health issue when plastic pieces are ingested by wildlife, which can also make its way into our food chain when we eat seafood.
Cigarette debris, another public health issue, has declined since 2010. Fewer cigarette filters, packaging, lighters and cigar tipswere found on the beach this year. For the first time in 19 years, these items were not listed in the top three pollutants.
“Hopefully, it is due to more smoking bans on beaches as well as increased awareness and the overall decline of [smoking] in general,” said Danch.
“As evidence from the beach sweep report, the beach sweep program is much more than just collecting garbage. It is really about collecting data and using that data as evidence to really try to prevent pollution at its source.”
Heather Staffert, staff scientist for the ocean advocacy group, said that most of the marine debris is land-based pollution that makes its way to the ocean before washing up on shore. “We live in one of the most densely populated areas of the U.S. in the New York metropolitan/ New Jersey region, and with a lot of people, there is a lot of potential for many sources of pollution,” she said.
“An individual might smoke a cigarette and flick it out the car window or onto the sidewalk, and this eventually will get washed by the rain down into a storm drain and out into our waterways. It’ll flow out to the ocean and wash up on our beaches. And while an individual might not make that much difference, when we have thousands of people doing something in certain areas, it’s going to have a major impact.”
Staffert cited the increase in the use of plastic products, from disposable forks and knives to bottles and food wrappers, as a contributing factor to beach pollution.
Additionally, heavy rainfall and record flooding from Tropical Storm Irene last August moved heavier trash items such as tires and lumber pieces.
New Jersey’s northern beaches are also impacted by the Hudson River, which collects inland debris from streams and other rivers before emptying out into the ocean.
“Last year there was also a fire at one of the New York wastewater treatment facilities, and this caused a discharge of over 200 million gallons of raw sewage. Fortunately, we didn’t see any garbagewash up as a result of this, but it really just points to a larger problem that we have in the New York City metropolitan area, and that’s combined sewer overflow [CSO],” said Staffert.
According to the scientist, when it rains more than a tenth of an inch to a quarter of an inch in the New York City region, CSOs release more than 28 billion gallons of raw sewage and storm water di- rectly into waterways.
Since 1985 Clean Ocean Action has organized the beach sweeps twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall.
COA Executive Director Cindy Zipf said the data from the annual cleanup is an indicator of a shifting economy and consumer trends that reflect our dependency on disposable plastic rather than reusing materials for various purposes.
She urged people to consider how their everyday choices can impact the community, and called for more proactive measures of reusing and recycling to fight pollution at its source.
“So with this data, we are able to look at some of these trends, and they are very much related to our consumerism. But what really hasn’t changed over the years is the dedication of the people who come and participate in the beach sweeps,” said Zipf.
“The beach sweep event is really an indication of Jersey pride. It’s about New Jersey giving back to something that gives so much to our community, and that’s the ocean. And so people come out and step up and want to make their beaches clean.”
The 27th annual Spring Beach Sweeps is scheduled for April 21 at more than 70 sites along the Jersey Shore, beginning at 9 a.m. and ending at 12:30 p.m., rain or shine. For more information about a local cleanup site, visit the website www.cleanoceanaction.org.