Volunteers remove tons of plastic debris from NYC shores

Brooklyn Bridge Park offers one of the most scenic lookout points in New York City. But look away from the iconic Manhattan skyline to the shoreline, and the view is of lots of plastic trash.

This week volunteers with the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy were out on their 12th coastal cleanup of the year.

"The majority of what we take out is plastic, about 75 percent is single-use plastic," said Devin Mathis, the director of programs for the Conservancy.

Mathis says in the first 11 cleanups volunteers removed close to a ton of debris. It may sound like a lot, but it's literally a drop in the bucket.

"We'll do cleanup for two hours, we'll leave and we come back the next night and it's all covered again," she said of plastic and other debris washing up on the shore.

Plastic pollution is a global epidemic apparent all over New York City shorelines.

While it's difficult to quantify how much plastic is in our waters locally, a 2016 study by the group NY/NJ Baykeeper found there were more than 165 million plastic particles floating in New York Harbor and nearby at any given time.

"We've created a soup, it's a plastic soup. I'm concerned for what's to come in the next years," said Felix Baez, a volunteer for the Department of Environmental Protection's Beach Floatables Surveillance Program. Each week Baez and about 100 other volunteers track and record what's washed up or is floating off of various city beaches and shorelines; most of it is plastic.

"When it is in the waters, as it does break down, unfortunately, the fish ingest it, it goes up the food chain were are going to find ourselves eating the same carcinogens as the fish," said Robert Gans, who has overseen the volunteer program for the last 20 years.

But Gans said that over those two decades of tracking beach debris, he has seen an improvement in terms of both a reduction in debris and more public awareness about plastic waste.

"As people get educated and into this, we're building a snowball and momentum," he said.

The city said it is continuously working to reduce sewer overflow during storms, which washes litter from streets into the water. A spokesperson for NYC DEP said in a statement: "We have booms around most of the outfalls to trap the trash before it can get out into the Harbor, and our skimmer vessels remove that trash on a weekly basis." 

Last year, the department unveiled Don't Trash our Waters, a public awareness and education campaign to encourage people to clean up their trash and reduce the use of single-use plastic. 

New volunteers are always needed for the beach surveillance program. Contact Robert Gans at ozonelayerllc@me.com.