Trash Skimmers Collect Plastic Waste in Local Harbors

Video and text by Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Plastic pollution is everywhere, showing up in the air, water, food, and consequently in our bodies.

To draw attention to this ubiquitous waste problem, plastic-catching traps, called trash skimmers, have been installed around Narragansett Bay to collect plastic debris and other trash in the marine environment.

The latest skimmer was recently unveiled inside the hurricane barrier on the Providence River. It’s heralded as the first trash skimmer to be installed in a state capital.

Using a pump to draw in debris, the partially submerged plastic box catches surface trash such as floating bottles and tiny debris called microparticles. Each skimmer costs about $12,000.

The Providence trash skimmer is fixed to a floating dock below the riverfront deck at the Hot Club. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

The Providence trash skimmer is fixed to a floating dock below the riverfront deck at the Hot Club. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Since 2017, three trash skimmers in Newport and one in Portsmouth have collected 27,000 pounds of trash. Cigarette butts, plastic food wrappers, and foam debris are the most common items collected. The skimmers are emptied daily throughout most of the year by interns and student groups. Each contains between 20 and 200 pounds of daily trash. The skimmers have collected unusual items such as floating plastic disks from a wastewater treatment plant in East Providence.

The project is run by Clean Ocean Access, the Middletown-based pollution advocacy group directed by David McLaughlin.

“The skimmer is the last line of defense for our oceans, and each installation allows for open, positive, and forward-thinking conversation of how to solve the local and global problem of litter and marine debris,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin is a member of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Task Force to Tackle Plastics, which has put forth legislation for a statewide ban on plastic retail bags. The bills (H5671 and S0410) have the support of leadership in the General Assembly and from business groups that previously opposed bag bans.

Plastic bags are one of the top items collected in the trash skimmers. So far, 10 Rhode Island municipalities — Barrington, Bristol, Jamestown, Middletown, New Shoreham, Newport, North Kingstown, Portsmouth, South Kingstown, and Warren — have enacted bans on plastic retail bags. East Providence, Providence, and Westerly are poised to pass bans.

Other waste-reduction bills at the Statehouse include a ban on polystyrene (S0268); “Ask First” plastic straw bills (H5314 and S0202); a bill to remove the sales tax on reusable bags (S0064); and a paint-care stewardship plan (H5794).

The trash skimmer project is funded by 11th Hour Racing, a Newport-based funder of ocean stewardship initiatives. The skimmer project is part of a the Southeast New England Marina Trash Skimmer Project, a multi-year prevention and education effort to clean local harbors and marinas.

Two skimmers are operating in Newport Harbor and a third is in the water off Fort Adams. Another is at New England Boat Works in Portsmouth. A trash skimmer is operating in Gloucester, Mass., and a new trash skimmer is scheduled to be unveiled in New Bedford Harbor during the week of Earth Day. Other skimmers are planned for Stamford, Conn., and possibly Fall River, Mass.