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Calling all Cape Codders!

March 30, 2011

If you have a favorite beach on Cape Cod Bay, you might want to grab a pair of latex gloves and a few trash bags and start cleaning up some of the estimated 8 million half-dollar-sized plastic discs released from a sewage treatment plant on the Merrimack River in Hooksett, New Hampshire on March 6. Beaches on Cape Cod Bay have been hard-hit in Brewster, Orleans and Eastham, and I’m sure the other towns on the bay are accumulating plenty of litter. Ocean-side beaches in Provincetown and Truro have reported discs, and with a Nor’ Easter on its way, I would expect ocean beaches in towns south of there to be impacted.

I spent 3 hours picking up the trash yesterday (Wednesday) and estimate my take in the thousands. My uncle, Dave Hubbard, working the same bayside beach, also gathered thousands of discs.This is a garbage problem of deceptively large proportions. While the discs are small and pale, like seashells, there are a tremendous number of them, and they will most likely drift and move with every tide, making the clean-up process seemingly endless. With wind-blown and tide-churned discs being buried and uncovered again, I suspect we will be seeing these nasty little things for years to come.

They are nasty, but I’m not certain we know how bad they could potentially be. Sea-birds, sea-turtles and many species of fish consume plastic. Sea-turtles like leather-backs are known to eat plastic bags, maybe mistaking them for squid. While the discs are very light and have been coming in to rest on the rack-line, or high water mark(s), those that are floating or partially buried could be mistaken for scallop or clam meats or small crabs.  (During a run of good fishing last fall, we took a couple to eat and found whole sand dollars in the bellies of the fish. They probably ingested them while trying to suck down some bottom-dweller, but who knows, maybe the fish can digest them.) I don’t think fish or birds will be able to rid the discs from their digestive tracts.

Newspaper reports indicated the sewage plant operators would be covering the clean-up costs, but I didn’t see an address where I might send my invoice. Sewer officials have contracted with an environmental clean-up crew, but looking around the shoreline today, the only other people I saw besides me and my uncle were dog-walkers. According to the New Hampshire Union Leader, “State environmental officials have cited Hooksett for violating three laws related to the incident, and said the plant did not install an alarm system that would have alerted workers to an overflow of a tank.”

I love our beaches and fish too much to wait to see what kind of cleanup the Hooksett folks will be capable of completing, and I hope I’m not alone. The highest rack line on the beach is usually deposited by unusually large tides. My foray yesterday found no discs in that rack. The rack lines from the most recent high tide held the litter, and clumps of seaweed rolled by the tide revealed huge numbers of discs when broken open. I picked through a clump measuring 2-feet long by 1-foot wide and collected 301 discs, then got into a larger clump of seaweed, 3-feet long by 2-feet wide that held 980 discs. (I stopped counting after those two samples.) It is helpful to kick apart lighter accumulations 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, as dusk finds the discs blending in with the sand, marsh grass, and seaweed. Those with physical limitations may find all the bending over and bending down difficult, but for the young, yogacized people out there – this is what all those forward bends and squats have been readying you for.

It would be nice if the harbor master’s office or parks and beaches department would provide a drop spot for bags, so we don’t have to store this sewage treatment plant litter until the transfer station opens. I am not afraid of the discs because I know the washing they’ve gotten 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 cleaning done. It’s a crappy job, but we can do it together.

The photographs accompanying this story show discs that have been removed from the beach. These are not photos of collected discs, but rather show the piles as I found them. You can see the density of the litter and the scope of the job at hand.




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