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Floatable Debris

The Problem

Trash floating in coastal waters and bays or washed up on the beach is called floatable debris. Floatable debris reduces the enjoyment of the Sound, can be a nuisance or hazard for boaters, and can harm wildlife. As a visual symbol of environmental degradation, floatable debris can also have serious economic consequences. During the summer of 1988, sensational headlines about floatable debris fueled public fears, causing a drop in beach attendance, a decline in business at seafood restaurants, and severe economic losses throughout the Northeast. For example, the loss to the Long Island economy alone for that summer was estimated to be as high as $1 to $2 billion.

While floatable debris in the open waters of Long Island Sound is less concentrated than in the neighboring New York-New Jersey Harbor estuary and in western Long Island Sound embayments, it is present in great enough quantities to mar the aesthetic enjoyment of the Sound. Debris floating in the waters of the Sound can accumulate along with detached seaweed and marsh grass into large surface “slicks.” These slicks can wash ashore fouling beaches and the coastline.

Floatable debris is also a nuisance and hazard for boaters. Floating lines can foul a boat’s propellers, and sheets of plastic or plastic bags can block an engine’s cooling water intake, resulting in the engine overheating. Collisions with larger, heavier floatable debris can cause hull or propeller damage to boats.

Floatable debris can harm wildlife when it is ingested or when organisms become entangled in it. Ingestion can cause suffocation or starvation. Undigested plastic pellets can stay in the stomachs of wildlife, leaving no space for real food. Floatable debris can have a particularly detrimental effect on endangered species, where the loss of an individual is devastating to a small population.

The Cause of the Problem

The ultimate source of floatable debris is people who litter and improperly dispose of their waste. Litter anywhere in the Sound’s drainage basin can ultimately enter the Sound. Litter is carried to the Sound primarily from:

  • Stormwater discharges and combined sewer overflows;
  • New York Harbor and tributaries to the Sound; and
  • Shoreline visitors and boaters.

The Plan to Solve the Problem

There are two ways to deal with floatable debris: reduce the flow of litter from its major sources, and collect and pick it up once it is in the Sound. Ultimately, the most effective strategy is to combat the root cause of the problem — littering and improper disposal.

To reduce the flow of floatable debris into the Sound, the Management Conference has proposed management actions centered around two areas: combined sewer overflow abatement and stormwater management, and education. Additional actions address cleaning up floatable debris once it has entered the Sound.

Combined Sewer Overflow and Stormwater Management

The combined sewer overflow abatement and stormwater management actions described previously in the Pathogens section of this summary also will substantially reduce the amount of floatable debris entering Long Island Sound.

Education and Cleanup

Existing floatable debris education and cleanup efforts should becontinued and enhanced, particularly in municipalities that have combined sewer overflows or storm sewers discharging into Long Island Sound or its tributaries. Examples include:

  • The New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary Program has developed detailed short- and long-term floatable debris action plans for the Harbor. The implementation of these action plans will significantly reduce the amount of floatable debris entering the Sound from the Harbor.
  • “Clean Streets/Clean Beaches” is an anti-litter campaign launched in April 1992 by a coalition of public and private groups in New York and New Jersey. The intent of this public education campaign is to make people aware that street debris ultimately turns up on beaches, and that this is one reason not to litter. This anti-litter program has been funded at a cost of $100,000.
  • The New York Sea Grant Extension Program, Connecticut Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program, and Long Island Sound Study have organized volunteers from civic associations, schools, and environmental and youth groups who borrow pre-made stencils and use them to paint messages on storm drains, such as “Don’t Dump– Drains to Long Island Sound.” This activity is estimated to cost $500 per coordinated event or $5,000 per year for ten events.
  • As part of the National Beach Cleanup Program, annual cleanups of Long Island Sound shorelines have taken place since 1988. Each autumn volunteers physically pick up trash from shorelines adjacent to the Sound. As presently constituted, this program costs $10,000 per state per year to coordinate and support volunteer efforts. The Management Conference recommends that this program be enhanced to include a second beach cleanup in the spring, prior to the beach season, at an additional cost of $10,000 per state per year.

Costs and Funding

Successful implementation of this plan is predominantly contingent upon the states and the EPA receiving, at a minimum, level funding for existing programs associated with managing combined sewer overflow and stormwater discharges and for public education. In order to abate combined sewer overflows, underground infrastructure systems must be modified. The redesign and restructuring of these systems are major public works projects. The costs of such activities are accounted for in the Pathogens section of this summary. New funding of approximately $12,500 per state per year is needed to enhance existing education and cleanup programs.

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