Plastic pollution plagues NY-NJ waterways—and it’s all our fault.


Co-authored by Erica Cirino

Whenever I visit my favorite beaches on Long Island’s North Shore, I look for sea glass. There’s just something about these wave-worn gems—blues, greens, browns, whites and one or two bits of rare yellow glass—that invites me to pick them up.

Lately though, I’ve been duped by small pieces of plastic masquerading as glass. (It’s amazing how closely shards of tumbled polypropylene and polyethylene can resemble sea glass.) In fact, I’ve been plucking up so many pieces of plastic lately that I began to wonder just how much of the stuff New York’s waters contain.

It turns out, there’s quite a bit of it: Researchers from Rutgers University, Monmouth University’s Urban Coast Institute, 5 Gyres, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and the State University of New York at Fredonia, working with scientists and techs from NY-NJ Baykeeper—an environmental organization based in Keyport, N.J.—estimate there are more than 165 million plastic pieces in the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary, a region where fresh river water meets seawater close to shore.

Fiberglass on Long Island beach. Credit: Erica Cirino

For five months last spring and summer, a group of NY-NJ Baykeeper field techs took to the waters of the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary in a ship equipped with a manta trawl, a mesh net named after the sea creature that it roughly resembles. (Both have gaping mouths, but where the manta ray has smooth, pointed fins, the trawl has square, shiny metal wings.)

On each voyage, the techs dragged the trawl behind their ship so it skimmed the surface of the water for about 30 minutes. In total, the techs trawled at 18 different locations in and around the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary. Their catch: nets that appeared —> Read More