Vacuuming the Sea

This nonprofit puts skimmers in New England harbors to collect plastics
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Plastic in the ocean is not a new problem, but getting rid of it is.

Plastic in the ocean is not a new problem, but getting rid of it is.

According to UNESCO, plastic debris causes the deaths of more than 100,000 marine mammals per year. Dead whales have been found with tens of pounds of plastic in their stomachs, and a Ghent University study found microplastics in oysters and mussels.

A Rhode Island-based nonprofit organization, Clean Ocean Access, is one of countless groups worldwide trying to find solutions to the problem of ocean plastics. In 2016, it created the Southeast New England Marina Trash Skimmer program, which puts trash skimmers in harbors and marinas to collect plastic and other trash before it enters the ocean.

Teaming up with cities, local businesses and other organizations, Clean Ocean Access has placed marine trash skimmers in Providence, Newport and Portsmouth, Rhode Island; and in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Additional skimmers are planned for Fall River, Massachusetts, and Stamford, Connecticut, and the group is in talks with a marina in Newport and the City of Providence to increase the number of skimmers in those harbors.

A marine trash skimmer in New Bedford harbor 

A marine trash skimmer in New Bedford harbor 

The molded polypropylene skimmers look like medium-sized dumpsters. Each is installed off a floating dock where single-use plastics and other trash are known to flow into the harbor. Using a pump, the skimmer circulates 400,000 gallons of water per day, sucking trash into the unit.

Local volunteers remove the debris on a daily basis, analyze it and enter the information into a database to identify the source of the problem. The skimmers also eliminate oil sheen and add dissolved oxygen to the water, helping to improve water quality.

“Each installation allows for open, positive and forward-thinking conversation of how to solve the local and global problem of litter and marine debris,” says Dave McLaughlin, executive director of Clean Ocean Access.

One skimmer can remove up to 50 pounds of trash per day, and on average captures about 20 pounds per day. That adds up to about 7,000 pounds per year per skimmer. A nearby sign explains the skimmer’s purpose and raises public awareness.

“More than anything, this is about getting people to think about their trash and how, if they mishandle it, it will go into the ocean where it will do more harm,” McLaughlin says.

Each skimmer costs $12,000. The first seven skimmers were paid for through a grant from 11th Hour Racing. The goal of the Southeast New England Marina Trash Skimmer program is to have 75 units in operation. 

This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue.