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Why I Sweep: Understanding what plastic pollution does to the environment

HavenColgate

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Haven Colgate is leading multiple shoreline cleanups in her community of Hastings-on-Hudson – at River Glen Cove, MacEacheron Park and Kinally Park – as part of Riverkeeper Sweep. We asked her to explain her motivation behind the work.

What makes you want to take on the problem of plastic pollution?

Knowing the impact of plastic trash on the environment (and that means, eventually, on us!) I hate to see plastic litter. While I don’t think I can personally “take on the problem of plastic pollution,” I am eager for everyone to understand what ambient plastic actually does. For example, not only do sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and choke on them, and albatrosses feed large pieces to their chicks – even dying with nothing but handfuls of plastic debris in their stomachs – plankton, the building block of the marine food chain, is uptaking microplastics (minuscule pieces of plastic).

Plastic adsorbs (yes, with a “d”) chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which biomagnify up the food chain. So when we eat fish, we are eating not only bits of plastic, but the toxins that attach to them. You’d have to be crazy not to be disturbed by these facts.

As someone who leads shoreline cleanups, what’s it like to collect all these pieces of trash? Does the experience bring the problem closer into focus for you and for others?

At a shoreline cleanup, it’s both a relief to do something constructive and depressing to see how much plastic is out there. While removing big pieces and multiple bags of trash is satisfying, we also encounter tiny bits of broken-up plastic pieces that are impossible to sift from the sand. It’s sweet to comb the earth’s hair and care for her, but it’s sad just how enormous the problem is, as if the patient is never going to get better.

That said, it’s inspiring to work with a group, as sharing shock and grief is better than grieving alone, and a group can collect a huge amount of trash in a short time, which is better removed than left in the environment. It makes you want to pick up litter every day.

What kinds of trash do you find along the shoreline?

We find everything from disposable items (lots of water and soda bottles and cans, snack bags and wrappers and plastic bags) to marine debris. We find a lot of straws. We have found parts of a plastic grocery cart, tires, buoys, old tarps, and lots of remnant pieces that are unidentifiable.

Are you hopeful of having a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags?

It would be great to ban single-use plastic bags nationwide, or at least to require stores to charge sufficiently for them so that people think twice about wasting them. Plastic bags become easily wind-borne and stray into nearby waterways. They clog storm drains, rivulets and streams, and litter ocean floors. While they are useful, they are also an environmental hazard and need to be treated as such.

More and more people are coming to their senses, and more and more communities, states, and countries are adopting legislation around plastic bags. So yes, I’m hopeful.

How did Hastings’ ban on plastic bags turn out? What kind of effect do you see it having?

The Hastings bag ban seems to have turned out very well; we have few complaints and just yesterday received some gratitude from a resident. We also banned polystyrene foam takeout containers and cups (in the same bill), which, like plastic bags, are also easily wind-borne, bad for wildlife and in addition a probable carcinogen.

Our Conservation Commission would like people to use reusable bags more than they do; while they are not dangerous to wildlife, paper bags are not an environmentally sustainable solution, and our local supermarket goes through lots of them.

Some people would rather have the option of plastic, and would even pay for it as they use the bags as trash can liners. But you can still purchase a box of plastic bags for your trash can. Seems a small price to pay for removing plastic bags from the wind and seas.

Read more about plastic pollution on our Trash Free Hudson page.

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