Lizzie Carr cranes her neck to stare at the buoyant plastic orb as it bumps the underside of the Mid-Hudson Bridge in Poughkeepsie.
“Are you serious?” She says with a touch of incredulous wonder. “That’s so apt, isn’t it?”
“Maybe a happy child will find it,” I respond. “Re-purpose it.”
But the balloon escapes the crannies between the bridge’s girders and continues drifting above the Hudson River — another single-use petroleum product now part of the Hudson Valley’s environment.
Carr is stopping at Kaal Rock Park in Poughkeepsie on her third day of paddleboarding the length of the Hudson to help address the problem of plastic waste. Starting near Albany and ending in Manhattan, Carr is logging and removing plastic litter from the river while taking water samples and charting the Hudson’s movement and temperature.
This is not Carr’s first journey. In her role as an environmental advocate focusing on riparian plastic waste, Carr has paddled the length of Britain, her home country, and became the first woman to paddleboard the English Channel in 2017.
On her journeys, she records the litter she retrieves in an app she developed, Plastic Patrol, with the goal of creating an international database to identify plastic concentrations — and where those concentrations come from.
The app, which is available online via the Apple App Store, has so far recorded 50,000 instances of plastic waste in 18 countries.
Carr’s journey down the Hudson — her first time on the East Coast — has been accompanied by less-than-ideal weather. She had to take refuge under a bridge during a thunderstorm on Day 1, and winds buffeted her Day 2 and 3, forcing her to paddle from a kneeling position to make progress.
Experiencing the Hudson from a few feet above its waters was a great introduction to the river, Carr said.
“That’s what I love about paddleboarding generally,” she said. “I think it can give you a perspective on the world you wouldn’t otherwise ever get…and thinking back 100 years ago, the first entry…that people had into [New York] was the river, and now I’m experiencing that very much in the original way, which is pretty amazing.”
Carr got into environmental advocacy through paddle-boarding, she said.
“Probably like most people, I was in a bit of an environmental sleep,” she said. “I didn’t really understand the problem, hadn’t comprehended it — [I] started paddle-boarding in London and was just shocked by the amount of rubbish I was seeing, the amount of plastic I was seeing in the canals, and I remember thinking, ‘why is no one talking about this, why is this being ignored, why is this OK?’”
Plastic in the oceans is a big problem. Between 4.8 million and 12.7 million metric tonnes of plastic entered the world’s oceans in 2010, a number expected to increase ten-fold by 2025, according to a report in Science magazine. This is a hard number to get one’s head around, but it has resulted in at least five giant oceanic garbage patches, including the Great Pacific Garbage Patch between California and Hawaii, a collection of micro-plastics and other debris concentrated by the Pacific’s currents into a mass larger than Texas.
By 2050, there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans by weight than fish, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
This is not helped by the fact that many sea creatures cannot distinguish between plastic and food, resulting in marine life starving to death as their bellies become bloated with indigestible trash.
This plastic comes from somewhere, Carr said.
“I started really campaigning to highlight the fact that a lot of it comes from inland, and therefore we need to localize the problem and make it something that people feel responsible for, even if they never have lived on a coastline,” she said.
Riverkeeper, an environmental group based out of Ossining, Westchester County, is supporting Carr in her Poughkeepsie stop, and provided E-Z Reachers and gloves to the 20-or-so volunteers who showed up to clean up the park.
Never to be merely an observer, I grabbed a trash bag and started hunting for plastic. The area near the parking lot was relatively clean, and there was little garbage in the thickets surrounding it.
However, as the group made its way to the shore, a plethora of non-biodegradables was found in the crannies of the riprap abutting the river: soda bottles, ice tea bottles, straws, chip bags, twine, an EKG patch, a heroin baggie, a disused shotgun shell (thankfully not found together), Styrofoam cups, pens, an entire meal’s worth of detritus from Popeye’s Chicken…
I also found a lot of legal drug paraphernalia — cellophane from cigarette packs, beer cans, blunt wrap packaging, lighters, cigarette butts. One of the volunteers reacted to this.
“Not surprising,” he said. “Most smokers are dirty people.”
“Hey!” I coughed. “I smoke.”
“Oh….,” the man trailed off, who had made the reasonable mistake of thinking there would be no nicotine-hounds at an environmental event. Of course, even though I don’t personally toss butts, evidence to his point was piling up in our trash bags.
The EKG patch gave a good example of what Carr was trying to accomplish. She wondered aloud about where it came from, and a volunteer told her there was a hospital close by.
“You can start to piece together what you’re finding, and where you’re finding it,” she said.
If, for example, 10 coffee cups of a certain brand were found in one location, the waste can be tracked back to the polluter, Carr said.
As plastic was collected, the volunteers snapped pictures with their phones and fed the photos into the Plastic Patrol database via the app. Carr said she has not yet confronted polluters producing the refuse, but was gathering data to that end.
As well as Riverkeeper, Carr was being supported in her Hudson River quest by the Hudson River Park Trust, who will compare water samples Carr collects with existing data. The fin of her paddle board was developed by Smartfin, whose researchers will study the data collected by their invention after Carr’s journey.
The quest is also being supported by REN Skincare, an environmentally conscious beauty products company.
As for Brit-vs-Yankee comparisons, Carr said she saw less plastics on the Hudson than on England’s Thames River, but she expected to see more trash as she paddled closer to NYC.
I ask her what plastic use would look like in an ideal world.
“My mission is to rid the world of single-use plastic,” she responded with her south-of London lilt.
“There are some things that just couldn’t exist without plastic, and I understand this — there is use for [plastics] in the right way — but single-use plastic straws, bags, bottles, those kind of things — it’s such a useless way of creating that product,” she said.
She called single-use plastics “unsustainable.”
“We need to go back to a day and an age where there was much more thought and longevity to our products,” Carr said, adding consumers need to more carefully consider what they buy, and how these products can be reused and upcycled.
“I think for me, it’s going back to beautiful design — well-crafted items that aren’t designed to be thrown away after one use,” she added. “That’s my Utopia.”