If you have a favorite beach on Cape Cod Bay, you might want to graba pair of latex gloves and a few trash bags and start cleaning up someof the estimated 8 million half-dollar-sized plastic discs releasedfrom a sewage treatment plant on the Merrimack River in Hooksett, NewHampshire on March 6. Beaches on Cape Cod Bay have been hard-hit inBrewster, Orleans and Eastham, and I'm sure the other towns on the bayare accumulating plenty of litter. Ocean-side beaches in Provincetownand Truro have reported discs, and with a Nor' Easter on its way, Iwould expect ocean beaches in towns south of there to be impacted.
I spent 3 hours picking up the trash yesterday andestimate my take in the thousands. My uncle, Dave Hubbard, working thesame bayside beach, also gathered thousands of discs.This is a garbageproblem of deceptively large proportions. While the discs are small andpale, like seashells, there are a tremendous number of them, and theywill most likely drift and move with every tide, making the clean-upprocess seemingly endless. With wind-blown and tide-churned discs beingburied and uncovered again, I suspect we will be seeing these nastylittle things for years to come.
They are nasty, but I'm not certain we know how bad they couldpotentially be. Sea-birds, sea-turtles and many species of fish consumeplastic. Sea-turtles like leather-backs are known to eat plastic bags,maybe mistaking them for squid. While the discs are very light and havebeen coming in to rest on the rack-line, or high water mark(s), thosethat are floating or partially buried could be mistaken for scallop orclam meats or small crabs. (During a run of good fishing last fall, wetook a couple to eat and found whole sand dollars in the bellies of thefish. They probably ingested them while trying to suck down somebottom-dweller, but who knows, maybe the fish can digest them.) I don'tthink fish or birds will be able to rid the discs from their digestivetracts.
Newspaper reports indicated the sewage plant operators would becovering the clean-up costs, but I didn't see an address where I mightsend my invoice. Sewer officials have contracted with an environmentalclean-up crew, but looking around the shoreline today, the only otherpeople I saw besides me and my uncle were dog-walkers. According to theNew Hampshire Union Leader, "State environmental officials have citedHooksett for violating three laws related to the incident, and said theplant did not install an alarm system that would have alerted workersto an overflow of a tank."
I love our beaches and fish too much to wait to see what kind ofcleanup the Hooksett folks will be capable of completing, and I hopeI'm not alone. The highest rack line on the beach is usually depositedby unusually large tides. My foray yesterday found no discs in thatrack. The rack lines from the most recent high tide held the litter,and clumps of seaweed rolled by the tide revealed huge numbers of discswhen broken open. I picked through a clump measuring 2-feet long by1-foot wide and collected 301 discs, then got into a larger clump ofseaweed, 3-feet long by 2-feet wide that held 980 discs. (I stoppedcounting after those two samples.) It is helpful to kick apart lighteraccumulations of rack to reveal discs.
This is a job for low tide, and the high is around 10 a.m. and p.m.at this writing. It is easier to spot the trash in broad day-light, asdusk finds the discs blending in with the sand, marsh grass, andseaweed. Those with physical limitations may find all the bending overand bending down difficult, but for the young, yogacized people outthere - this is what all those forward bends and squats have beenreadying you for.
It would be nice if the harbor master's office or parks and beachesdepartment would provide a drop spot for bags, so we don't have tostore this sewage treatment plant litter until the transfer stationopens. I am not afraid of the discs because I know the washing they'vegotten on their way here.
With the tides in our favor, let's get out there today (Thursday)and whenever the weather clears this weekend and get some cleaningdone. It's a crappy job, but we can do it together.
The photographs accompanying this story show discs that have beenremoved from the beach. These are not photos of collected discs, butrather show the piles as I found them. You can see the density of thelitter and the scope of the job at hand.