Armed with gloves and garbage pickers, over a hundred people spread out across a section of Rockaway Beach last Friday. They were sifting through the sand for plastic debris that shouldn’t have been there in the first place, as part of a cleanup effort organized by Parley For Oceans, a non-profit organization, and Foundation for New York's Strongest, the Department of Sanitation's (DSNY) official non-profit group.
It is estimated that between 60 and 80 percent of ocean debris is plastic, something apparent in the garbage collected last week. "A total of around 170 volunteers collected and sorted more than 1,200 pounds of waste in less than two hours," a Sanitation spokesperson said on Monday. "Among the most prominent type of items collected were: single-use plastic, food wrapping and cigarette butts."
There were also soda cans, plenty of plastic straws, food and candy wrappers, and lots of disposable cups and containers, which residents say seem to be the most common kind of refuse on the beach.
This was Parley’s first beach clean up in New York, after organizing over a thousand similar activities across the world.
Cyril Gutsch, their founder and CEO, who previously ran a design company, spoke about shifting his focus to conservation after meeting famed environmentalist Paul Watson many years ago. He joked about taking on the ocean as a “client.”
“He [Watson] told me that the oceans would pretty much die in our lifetime,” Gutsch said to the gathered crowd. “Today, seven years later, we’re doing cleanups in 26 countries. And that’s the beginning of something.”
Previously Parley has upcycled plastic waste they collected into sports shoes. With the waste collected in New York, the group intends to make NYC-themed fabric bags by March 2020, when the single-use city-wide plastic bags takes effect.
“When you look at waste, you can either see product at the end of life, or you can see raw material,” Gutsch told Gothamist. He went on to explain how his team filters out different types—PET, PT, nylon, tinted, and clear—of plastic for further reuse.
“We’re turning the water bottles we find into yarn, and weaving them into shopping bags, so that people can use them instead of disposable plastic bags,” Gutsch said.
Small groups of volunteers, including some who travelled from as far away as Washington Heights, cleaned the section of Rockaway beach, and its surrounding boardwalk, between 28th and 38th street.
One volunteer was Sho Shibuya, a Japanese designer and author, who created a project called PLASTIC PAPER, chronicling New York City’s ubiquitous single-use plastic bags to showcase how widespread their use is. Since launching the book in March 2018, Shibuya has donated his profits to Parley.
“Before I started the project, I really didn’t know much about the problems of plastic,” Shibuya told Gothamist. “Now I’ve realized how much people don’t recognize what people use, and how it affects the environment.”
Bridget Klapinski, a local Rockaways resident and member of the Rockaway Beach Civic Association, was encouraged to see the volunteers show up last week. She said residents like herself routinely clean up the beach, but sometimes find the volume of garbage overwhelming.
“I think we’re really waking up to this issue, and it’s encouraging. It’s sometimes hard not to feel despair, but I think the conversation is happening,” Klapinski told Gothamist. “It’s about reducing what we bring to the beach, and thinking about our consumption on a daily basis.”