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 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:
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.
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.
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:
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.