Tiny bits of plastic add to pollution of N.J. beaches, ocean

Plastic bag in ocean

Trash collected by volunteers with the Clean Ocean Action environmental group in APril 2012. The group counted 351,781 items of trash collected on more than 60 beaches from the tip of Cape May to the Raritan Bay shore in that year. (Wayne Parry/AP Photo, file)

Plastic is once again the biggest culprit among the debris littering New Jersey beaches.

Plastic in its many forms accounts for more than 70 percent of the waste collected by Clean Water Action during the group’s beach sweeps last April and October.

Hundreds of thousands of tiny plastic pieces that are ingredients in personal care products and clothing are a growing threat to the marine environment, said Cassandra Ornell, a staff scientist with Clean Ocean Action.

“These tiny plastic pieces end up in our oceans and on our beaches oftentimes because they are too small to be intercepted by wastewater plant-filtration systems,” she said. “They may also be spilled during transport.”

The plastic pieces resemble fish eggs and can cause big problems for animals that eat them, Ornell said.

“They can cause issues such as blockage of the throat, puncturing of the stomach,” she said. “If these plastic pieces have absorbed chemicals in the ocean, then there is a potential these chemicals could leach out into the animal, and that could cause endocrine disruption and other types of ailments.”

While the beach sweeps help raise awareness about the environmental hazards of litter, Clean Ocean Action officials say they’re pushing for more measures to prevent pollution at its source.

The group’s next beach sweep at more than 70 sites along the Jersey Shore will be Saturday.

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