By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
NEWPORT, R.I. — They look like small, floating Dumpsters; they work much like pool skimmers, and they need to be treated like boats. Their job is to help keep Newport Harbor clean — a task not limited to cleaning up after people.
In early August, two “Newport Harbor Trash Skimmers” were attached to docks at Perrotti Park. The electric-powered units were bought to strengthen and expand efforts to improve water quality and eliminate marine debris in Newport Harbor.
Those behind the installation of the skimmers say the devices also will help increase the recreational value of the city’s waterfront, bring awareness to the types of accumulating debris in the harbor and promote environmental stewardship.
The installation of the two skimmers was made possible by a partnership between Clean Ocean Access, 11th Hour Racing and the city of Newport. The cost of the skimmers — about $22,000 combined, including delivery and installation — was paid by 11th Hour Racing, a Newport-based philanthropic organization that establishes partnerships within the sailing and marine communities to promote healthy marine environments. The organization also supplied $32,000 in additional funding to support their upkeep and educational signage.
Michelle Carnevale, program associate for 11th Hour Racing, said the skimmers are as much a teaching tool as floating trash cans. “We need to change behaviors,” she said. “Land-based behaviors have a big impact on the harbor and the marine environment. The skimmers are another tool to educate people and businesses about the importance of reducing the materials we buy and use.”
About 30 units, manufactured by Washington-based Marina Trash Skimmers, are in use on the West Coast and Hawaii. The two installed in Newport Harbor are believed to be the first ones in use on the East Coast.
They operate essentially as a large pool skimmer, filtering water 24 hours a day and capturing floating debris and absorbing surface oil or other contaminants. The two Newport Harbor skimmers have been in operation for about a month and the debris they have sucked from the harbor contains the usual suspects: plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic cups, cigarette butts, fishing gear, caps and lids.
The skimmers are currently being emptied about five times a week, although that number will increase, especially after heavy rains, when stormwater runoff washes land-based debris into local waters — one of the skimmers is across from an outfall pipe that drains into the harbor. About 30 pounds of debris is removed each time a skimmer is emptied.
That material is being analyzed by Dave McLaughlin, executive director of Clean Ocean Access, and volunteers, to better understand what debris is most prevalent in Newport Harbor and to identify the potential sources.
“It’s about increasing local awareness about what is coming off the streets,” McLaughlin said. “How do we fix that? The solution isn’t to install more trash skimmers. We all need to take more responsibility of all the materials we use and toss away, like all that plastic that was designed to last for thousands of years.”
Carnevale noted that reduce is the most important component of “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.” “We need to reduce consumption, especially when it comes to single-use plastics,” she said.
The skimmers are powered by a three-fourths-horsepower electric engine that costs $2 a day to run. Hundreds of gallons of water flow through the units every few hours. The skimmers are minimally invasive to marine life, according to McLaughlin.
Clean Ocean Access is combining the installation of the Newport Harbor Trash Skimmers with an effort to ban the use of plastic checkout bags on Aquidneck Island. Both the Newport City Council and Middletown Town Council have passed resolutions to create a draft ordinance that would ban plastic retail bags. McLaughlin said he is expecting to make a presentation to the Portsmouth Town Council next month.