Floatable Debris

The Problem

Floatable debris has two primary components. One is the discharge of trash and solid waste to the Harbor/Bight through runoff, storm water discharges, combined sewer overflows (CSOs), and poor solid waste handling practices. The other, called Harbor drift, consists of large timbers and other massive items resulting from the decay of shoreline structures, such as piers, bulkheads, and pilings, and sunken or derelict vessels.

Most of the floatable debris originates in the Hudson-Raritan estuary, but can end up on ocean beaches, depending on the force of the flow out of the Harbor as well as prevailing wind and other meteorological conditions. The washup of floatable debris on ocean beaches can create immense problems for shore communities and the regional tourist economy. Just such a scenario occurred during the summers of 1987 and 1988 when widespread washups of floatable debris closed many miles of ocean beaches along the New Jersey and Long Island shorelines. An early report of the Bight Restoration Plan estimated New York's losses in the range of $900 million to $2 billion and New Jersey's from $900 million to $4 billion over the two-year period.

In addition to the potential for closing recreational beaches, washups of floatable debris create an aesthetic degradation of Harbor/Bight shorelines and water vistas and reduce other recreational values. Some floatable debris, particularly plastic and other non-degradable items, can be serious hazards to marine wildlife, and Harbor drift can pose significant hazards to commercial and recreational marine navigation.

The Plan

GOALS Eliminate floatable-related beach closures.             
              Prevent adverse impacts on marine resources from floatable debris.                      Prevent waterborne hazards to commercial and receational navigation.

The Approach

In response to the major floatable debris washups of 1987 and 1988, the participants in the Harbor Estuary Program (HEP) developed and implemented a highly successful joint effort, known as the Short-term Floatables Action Plan. This plan has been implemented since 1989 and is intended to minimize floatable debris washups by intercepting debris slicks within the Harbor. With the help of this plan, the extent of beach closures declined from over 70 miles in 1988 to fewer than 4 miles in 1989, and closures have remained at a low level in subsequent years. The Short-term Floatables Action Plan has four key elements:


As a supplement to this unified effort, New Jersey has implemented a program called "Operation Clean Shores", whereby the state organizes an annual program to remove debris from the New Jersey shorelines within the Harbor. Over 10 million pounds of debris are collected each year through this state initiative.

While the Short-term Floatables Action Plan addresses the immediate issue of trash accumulations in Harbor waters, the Harbor Estuary Program recognizes the need to develop a long-term strategy to address the sources that discharge floatable debris to the Harbor/Bight. As with other pollutant categories, rainfall-induced discharges are primary sources of floatable debris entering the system. The strategy to address these sources is included in the Rainfall-induced Discharges section.

Program Objectives and Actions

HEP has identified six objectives to address floatable debris. The Plan calls for several specific actions to achieve each objective, as summarized below.

Objective F-1: Continue and enhance implementation of the successful Short-term Floatables Action Plan.


Objective F-2: Expand the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Harbor Drift Removal Program without compromising important habitat.


Objective F-3: Implement beach cleanups.


Objective F-4: Assess and control landfill and solid waste practices.


 Objective F-5: Communicate impacts of marine debris and appropriate disposal practices.


Objective F-6: Reduce loadings of floatables from CSOs, storm water discharges, and other non-point sources.

Actions addressing this objective are included in the Rainfall-induced Discharges section of the Plan.

1Throughout this Summary, letters represent the following: c = commitment; r = recommendation; c-r = action is a commitment, in part, and a recommendation, in part. [ Back to Text ]

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