Plastic Plague at the Jersey Shore

Trash is wreaking havoc on our waterways. At the Shore, towns and volunteers are taking action.

A trio of young volunteers filled a black bag with garbage and a white bag with recyclables at Clean Ocean Action's fall 2017 Beach Sweeps in Sea Bright. The card is used to record data.
A trio of young volunteers filled a black bag with garbage and a white bag with recyclables at Clean Ocean Action's fall 2017 Beach Sweeps in Sea Bright. The card is used to record data.
Photo courtesy of Clean Ocean Action

We all love the Jersey Shore and we want our beaches to be clean and safe. The state has come a long way in terms of water quality, but there is a land-based problem that continues to wreak havoc on our waterways and beaches. The problem, in a word, is plastic.

There’s no denying that single-use plastics are convenient. Most of us do our best to recycle plastic bottles, but many other plastics—such as bags, straws, wrappers, cups, lids and take-out containers—often are thrown away with the regular trash. These items end up on land or in landfills and can eventually turn up in our waterways.

Plastic bags are particularly onerous. No one is certain how long a plastic bag takes to decompose. Estimates range from 500-1,000 years—and even then, they will just break down into tiny plastic pieces.

Disposed plastic bags have become such an issue that some New Jersey municipalities have instituted or are considering bans or fees to reduce their impact. Shore towns with plastic-bag bans include Long Beach Township, Longport and Ventnor.

The problem is readily apparent at the Jersey Shore. Just ask Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action (COA), a Highlands-based coalition that works to protect marine waters. COA holds beach cleanups every spring and fall.

“In our recent beach cleanups,” says Zipf, “volunteers picked up a total of 373,686 pieces of trash, and more than 84 percent of that was some kind of plastic.”

Zipf calls it “a plastic plague” and warns that it is hardly contained to our beaches. “You can go out into the ocean thousands of miles, away from major cities, and you find plastics,” says Zipf.

Still, Zipf is hopeful. “There is an immense Jersey pride for our Shore,” she says. “When we put out the call for beach cleanups, thousands of people turn out. When the Shore is being threatened, people from miles away come to her aid. That is something very special.”

Zipf wants us to know that plastics are also in items like cigarette filters, which are often thrown on the ground. Filters, which contain synthetic fibers exposed to tar, nicotine and toxins, are washed into storm drains that lead to streams and rivers, and ultimately, to the ocean.

“Birds or fish eat the filters and other small plastic pieces because they think they look like little fish,” says Zipf. “This all impacts the food chain at the smaller and smaller level. In California, they have found plastic microfibers in the tissues of fish, so we end up eating it as well.”

Clean Ocean Action’s mission is to remind us how much we can all do to help (see box). The key, says Zipf, is to become “watershed/waterway mindful.”

And never forget how much we depend on our oceans for life. “Most people really don’t understand the importance of the ocean for climate and the oxygen we breathe,” says Zipf. “Rain forests account for 28 percent of the oxygen we breathe, while our oceans account for 70 percent.”

Simply put, our oceans and waterways provide us with sustenance and recreation, and they do so free of charge. It is our job to take care of this precious resource for generations to come.

Read more Steve Adubato: Only in NJ articles.

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