Study Investigates Proliferation of Plastic in Waterways Around New York
By LISA W. FODERAROFEB. 18, 2016
The New York Times
KEYPORT, N.J. — At the office of NY/NJ Baykeeper, an environmental group, Sandra Meola spread out her haul. For six months last year, she plied the bays and rivers around New York City, skimming the shimmering surface with a fine-mesh net in search of her nemesis: plastic.
Here it was in abundance. A kelly-green floss pick. A swatch of Styrofoam. A Reese’s candy wrapper. A plastic bottle cap. A cigarette filter. A squiggle of fishing line. A nutrition label. And a bright orange drinking straw. “That’s from Dunkin’ Donuts,” she said of the last offending item on the table.
The study of plastic pollution in the waterways of New York City and northern New Jersey was the first of its kind. And it turned up a sobering statistic: At any given time, an estimated 165 million plastic particles are floating in the estuaries that stretch from the Tappan Zee Bridge, along the lower Hudson River, south to Sandy Hook Bay, in New Jersey. That is more than 256,000 particles per square kilometer.
Since the federal Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, rivers and bays have grown significantly cleaner as state and local governments have imposed tighter controls on industrial pollution and sewage treatment. But one problem the act did not address has grown along with the nation’s disposable consumer culture — the proliferation of plastic debris.
Plastic pollution often goes unnoticed because water bottles, plastic bags and other large pieces quickly break down into smaller particles. Indeed, the NY/NJ Baykeeper study found that 85 percent of the particles counted were so-called microplastics, 5 millimeters or smaller, about the size of a grain of rice.
Environmental experts say that microplastics are pernicious to wildlife. Some of the plastic bits come from cosmetic products like facial scrubs and toothpastes that use synthetic microbeads, which wash down drains and cannot be filtered out by many wastewater treatment plants. Others are nurdles, resin pellets used in the production of plastics.
Not only do microplastics mimic plankton, an important food source for fish and seabirds, but they also absorb toxins commonly found in polluted waters, like PCBs, pesticides and flame retardants. The plastic particles slip easily into the food chain, contaminating wildlife and, possibly, humans.
“Smaller pieces of plastic are most concerning,” said Ms. Meola, the communications and outreach associate at NY/NJ Baykeeper. “Fish mistake tiny plastic particles for food.”
A boat used by NY/NJ Baykeeper skims debris with a manta trawl during its six-month investigation of local water quality. Credit Sandra Meola, NY/NJ Baykeeper
In the study, which was done in partnership with scientists from Rutgers University and the State University of New York at Fredonia, plastic samples were categorized by size and type and then counted using a dissecting microscope. Categories included fragments, foam, fishing line and clothing fiber, pellets and film. The most abundant type of plastic in samples — 38 percent — was foam, or polystyrene.
During the trawling expeditions last spring and summer, a crew from NY/NJ Baykeeper sampled 18 locations in some of the most densely populated and industrial areas in the United States, including the Passaic River, the East River, Newtown Creek, Upper New York Bay and Arthur Kill. Twelve of the sites were in New Jersey waters, and six were in New York.
The team dragged a manta trawl, a nine-foot net with a large open mouth that resembled a manta ray. The boat captain dragged the net across the water for 30 minutes at a speed of two knots. Each of the samples was then dried and cleaned of organic matter.
In all, 6,932 plastic particles were counted. Relying on the methodology in a study of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes, NY/NJ Baykeeper’s researchers extrapolated that 165,840,512 particles were afloat in the 160,000-acre expanse of brackish water that makes up the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary.
Sherri A. Mason, a professor of chemistry at SUNY Fredonia, has sampled plastic from all five of the Great Lakes. Her data has suggested concentrations of more than one million bits of microplastic per square mile in some parts of the lakes’ surfaces. Microbeads made up more than 60 percent of the samples.
Dr. Mason provided technical assistance on the NY/NJ Baykeeper study, which found that the average quantity of plastic per square kilometer sampled in New York waters was twice that of New Jersey waters. NY/NJ Baykeeper says it will see whether that ratio holds up when it surveys the same sites again, starting in March.
The NY/NJ Baykeeper study, Dr. Mason said, “continues the story that was started with our work” in the Great Lakes. “Plastic pollution is everywhere,” she said, “and the closer we get to the sources — us — the higher the counts.”
Dr. Mason’s research helped draw attention to the danger of cosmetic microbeads in the nation’s waterways. After a number of states enacted bans on microbeads, Congress voted in December to pass the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015. Under the law, companies must stop adding plastic beads to products by July 2017.
Environmental scientists and activists have embraced the new law. But they still worry about the other sources of plastic marine pollution. Plastic waste is supposed to go to landfills, or be recycled, but some of it winds up in waterways when people intentionally litter or when trash in overloaded bins spills onto streets and down storm drains.
It is nearly impossible to remove plastic from bays, rivers and oceans once it gets there, experts say. But advocates insist that more work is needed to prevent disposable plastic from reaching shores in the first place.
Ms. Meola was disappointed when New York City’s ban on plastic-foam food containers was overturned last September by a State Supreme Court justice who ruled it “arbitrary and capricious.” Still, Ms. Meola pointed to local governments like that of Rahway, N.J. — which has long banned plastic-foam containers — as foot soldiers in the movement to reverse what she called Americans’ plastic addiction.
“It’s common sense,” she said. “We can’t keep using this stuff for a few minutes and then throwing it out and having it end up in our waters.”
A version of this article appears in print on February 19, 2016, on page A28 of the New York edition with the headline: Study Shows the Buildup of Plastic in Waterways. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe