While beach towns in New Jersey and Delaware work to curb the use of plastic straws, bags, containers, and even balloons, researchers say it appears the real problem lies upstream, in cities and towns far from lapping ocean waves.
Kelly O’Day is a retired wastewater engineer and self-styled “trash detective” who has devoted his free time to battling litter in Philadelphia. At a stormwater inlet at the corner of West Loudon and North Seventh streets in North Philadelphia, he pointed to plastic trash that had accumulated by the metal grate.
“When you get enough flow of water, that plastic bottle will make its way … to the stormwater inlet,” O’Day said.
When it rains, water washes down the street, pushing plastics and other trash into the stormwater drain. Those openings on the curb were designed to capture rainwater and prevent flooding, not serve as public trash cans. But researchers say more and more trash is making its way from those drains to the ocean.The City of Philadelphia alone has more than 75,000 stormwater inlets. They are built with grates designed to trap the larger items, but the smaller pieces of trash slip through. And over time, some of the larger items break down.
In 2017, city crews removed 67 tons of litter, including tires and shopping carts, from the stormwater system. The Philadelphia Water Department also operates three marine vessels that clean up trash from the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, last year removing more than 12 tons of trash in all.
The Water Department has many ways to remove litter from outstreams. Stormwater inlets are trapped and designed to capture trash. “When these traps are functioning properly, and usually they are, it captures most of that debris. There’s always a chance for some of that smaller debris, like pieces of plastic and other things, to go through,” said Water Department spokeswoman Joanne Dahme. The city also has 32 inlet-cleaning crews to remove and clean storm drains in the street. Since 2003, the Waterways Restoration Team has cleaned streams all over the city. There are also multiple cleanups run by volunteers and nonprofit organizations.
Dahme said plastics don’t affect the quality of the H2O we drink because the Water Department’s plants are designed to remove plastics before they process it. “We’re not drinking microplastics,” she said.
Still, the drains serve as conduits, transporting rainwater and plastics underground through the sewers to wastewater-treatment plants. During heavy rains, that water, along with sewage, can carry the plastic trash directly into creeks, rivers, bays, and eventually the ocean.
Three miles downstream from West Loudon and North Seventh streets, O’Day pointed to a giant stone tunnel that empties into the Frankford Creek during heavy rains. It’s the largest stormwater outfall in the city.
“What will happen is the water rises up, the stuff that’s here now will move downstream, and new stuff will be coming in,” O’Day said. “There’s a continuum along the Frankford Creek to the Delaware River, along the Delaware River to the bay, out to the ocean. So we’re leaving a plastic trail all the way out to the ocean.”
Jonathan Cohen is an assistant professor in the School of Marine Science and Policy at the University of Delaware. He researches pollution in the Delaware Bay, focusing on microplastics, tiny pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long.
Some of those microplastics are manufactured; others result from the breakdown of larger pieces. In 2015, the Obama administration banned the manufacturing, packaging, and distribution of rinse-off cosmetics containing plastic microbeads, tiny pieces of plastic found in health and beauty products. Last year, Cohen collected samples from 16 collection stations on the Delaware River and found them at every site.
Cohen’s research shows that cities like Philadelphia and Wilmington could be the largest source of these tiny bits of plastic floating around in Delaware Bay and ending up in the Atlantic Ocean. He also saw the amount of plastics increase after heavy rains. Ocean pollution is more likely to originate in urban areas, rather than with seasonal beachgoers, he said.
“It doesn’t seem to be the increased number of people in the summer that generates more microplastics that we’re measuring in the environment,” Cohen said. “What does seem to relate to the microplastics that we see is urbanization” — more people using more disposable plastics, which end up in waterways.
A report by the World Economic Forum predicted that by 2050, pound for pound, there will be more plastics than fish in the world’s oceans.
Scientists say the presence of plastics in our waterways and our beaches is not only an aesthetic concern, it also threatens birds, fish and mammals. They either get entangled by it, or they’re eating it, and in many cases it makes them sick.
Plastics are manufactured using petroleum products. So a question scientists are trying to answer is how much of those hydrocarbons are absorbed by aquatic organisms, and in turn, people who eat fish.
Cindy Zipf is the director of Clean Ocean Action, an organization that has been doing beach cleanups along the Jersey shore, twice a year, for the last 33 years. After collecting the trash, they document their finds.
Zipf said the trend over the years includes an increase in plastics. According to the organization’s 2017 report, a record 84 percent of items collected were plastic or foam plastic.
“Plastic bags, plastic wrappers, buckets, caps and lids, cigarette filters, cigarette lighters, diapers, toys, six-pack holders, tampon applicators, toy pieces,” said Zipf, running through the list.
Single-use, disposable plastic items accounted for 66 percent of the total items collected. Zipf said some of them have dates that go back more than 50 years, and that every year, they find something new.
“The latest, newest item we’re finding on the beach are these individual single-use teeth cleaners that have a toothpick on one end and a piece of floss on the other end,” Zipf said.
No matter where they live, she said she hopes people become more aware of the problem.
“That fork that you just used to eat that salad for whatever many minutes, now it will last for hundreds and hundreds of years,” Zipf said.
To combat plastics pollution, environmentalists like Zipf are adding a fourth “R” to the slogan reduce, reuse, recycle. They want people to refuse plastics.
This article was produced in conjunction with StateImpact Pennsylvania.