The New York Harbor and connecting waterways are, as the kids might say if the kids cared about the environment, mad polluted. Now, thanks to a study by the environmental group NY/NJ Baykeeper (PDF), we know just how much of the filth in our water is from a society gone mad for plastic. The group trawled 18 different areas of the harbor for 30 minutes at a time, and based on what they found, researchers estimate that there are 165 million plastic particles in the water on any given day, or 663,037 per square mile.
The New York Times explains that the country's rivers, lakes, and estuaries have gotten cleaner since the Clean Water Act tightened regulations around industrial pollution and sewage treatment, but that plastics are not covered under the act. Now, between runoff litter and spilled trash, industrial plastic pellets called nurdles, and the plastic microbeads in various beauty products (Attorney General Eric Schneiderman estimates 19 tons of microbeads enter New York waterways annually), the stuff is everywhere.
Plastic doesn't totally biodegrade, but it does break down into tiny bits. Some 85 percent of the particles recovered by the trawling crew were smaller than 5 millimeters, or about the size of a grain of rice. This is a problem in part because, the report explains:
Upon entering a river, lake, or other waterway, plastic acts as a sponge for toxic pollutants present in the water, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), pesticides, and flame retardants[...]Such organic pollutants are man-made for industrial purposes and do not break down easily. Thus, if a spill or improper disposal occurs, pollutants can remain in water for decades and latch on to plastic material. Several NY-NJ Harbor Estuary waters, including the Passaic River, Newtown Creek, and Newark Bay, are highly contaminated with such pollutants.
[...] Due to their size, aquatic creatures can mistake microplastic for food, harming their digestive systems and overall survival. Not only can fish ingest the plastic itself, but they also ingest pollutants that adhered to the plastic. Microplastic contamination has been found in finfish and shellfish tissues indicating that microplastics can enter aquatic and likely human food webs.
Inadvisable as it may seem, there are some places in the harbor, including the East River, where the government thinks you can catch and eat fish without dying instantly. A sample from one stretch of the river came in with the greatest percentage of plastic samples smaller than 1 millimeter, at 58 percent.
New York City comes away from the study with some dubious bragging rights: the average plastic quantity from water sampled in New York waters was twice as much as that from New Jersey. The study's authors say they plan to take more samples in the spring to see if this result repeats itself.
So what can be done? Congress passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act in December, mandating that companies stop putting the synthetic pebbles in products by the summer of 2017. Even so, the future looks bleak. Baykeeper recommends that people go "plastic-free," switching to reusable shopping bags, water bottles, utensils, etc. and declining straws at your local bodega. Barring some major sea change, they say, "Our world’s oceans are expected to contain 1 metric ton of plastic for every 3 metric tons of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish by weight."
The report offers no special insight about what to do when the guys at the bodega are so quick that the two plastic bags containing a lone Vitamin Water and a straw are in your hand before they've even made change. We assume the answer is to snatch the bottle out and tell the guys to keep their filthy plastic.
"It’s common sense," NY/NJ Baykeeper spokeswoman Sandra Meola told the Times. "We can’t keep using this stuff for a few minutes and then throwing it out and having it end up in our waters."