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Toward "Trash Free" Waters

Summer 2016

Trash in our waters: a water quality issue that everyone understands and can even help address. This is not a new topic - you probably learned about it in elementary school when you were taught not to be a "litter bug." Or, heard about in complaints concerning our "throw-away" society.

NYSDEC regulates solid waste and encourages recycling through programs and a vision forward that are well-summarized in "Beyond Waste". This 2010 report seeks to move New York away from the trash-litter-landfill cycle into a program that treats wastes as the resources they are. Think of the energy and fertilizer produced through anaerobic digesters, for example. And certain types of senseless wastes can be completely eliminated.

Studies have found small plastic bits everywhere, such as the infamous trash islands extending over Texas-sized areas in our oceans. Fish and wildlife are harmed eating plastic, mistaking it for food. In the ocean, plastics break down into minute particles, creating what researchers have called a global "smog" of plastic particles.

There has been some progress, like the recent ban on plastic microbeads in personal care products. But this new law addresses one very small component of the problem. According to USEPA, an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic pollution will enter the oceans annually, an amount expected to double by 2025.

NYSDEC is collaborating with USEPA on a "Trash-Free Waters" initiative, with the goal of reducing the plastic trash volume entering aquatic environments to near zero. Indeed, the state's water quality standard for "trash, cinders, ashes, oils, sludge and other refuse" in saline waters is already "none in any amounts."

A problem of this magnitude will require a broad range of ingenious solutions. I believe in attacking this problem at the source: get away from plastic trash in the first place. Professionals in the water resource recovery sector should take this position as well. Water flows downhill, and carries with it the plastic trash tossed on the hill. In regulated MS4 communities this trash becomes a problem "owned" by the operators of sewer and storm sewer systems (no one said life is fair).

New York City, for example, has initiated the BYO (Bring Your Own) campaign to reduce consumer waste and combat littering, encouraging the use of reusable shopping bags, bottles and mugs. Following the campaign, the City reported 157 million fewer plastic bags going to the landfill, saving the City $2 million. Another City program, Adopt-a-Basket, involves volunteer monitors who keep litter baskets from overflowing on the street and into the storm drain. Other ideas include a plastic bag fee, a ban on Styrofoam cups, and the like.

The solutions range from complex recycling systems to responsible personal choices - the things we were taught years ago as kids. While there is no single solution, it is clear that all of us - as the professionals who keep the water clean - have a big stake in efforts to move our society "Beyond Waste."

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