Aquatic Street Sweepers — Floating Trash is No Match for Special Marine Trash Skimmers

UMI TrashCat™ operating on the East River of New York City

UMI TrashCat™ operating on the East River of New York City

When most landlubbers throw a piece of trash on the ground, they usually don’t give it a second thought. But boaters are rudely reminded of this carelessness every time a piece of trash clogs an intake valve.

The resulting damage to the boat’s engine can be expensive to repair and can put an unexpected end to weekend plans. Beyond the boating world, refuse that washes off the streets, into the storm sewer system and out into the area’s waterways clutters beaches and cause serious harm to sea life.

And no one detests it more than John Hansen and Joseph Scamardella, co-captains of the SV Piping Plover, a skimmer boat that has been cleaning trash from the waters around Brooklyn since April.

“People don’t realize when they throw a wrapper into the street it ends up in a waterway. It can start to look like a landfill (in the water),” said Scamardella as the pair piloted the skimmer through Paerdegate Basin, a tributary to Jamaica Bay.

The 50-foot Piping Plover and the SV Ibis clean city waterways like aquatic street sweepers. Three other DEP skimmer vessels will be added in the future, and a 100-foot Army Corps of Engineers vessel will take care of scouring New York Harbor and the area near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The Army Corps of Engineers has used skimmer boats on major waterways like the Hudson and East rivers, and the Department of Sanitation employs them near the Fresh Kills landfill to retrieve refuse that blows into the Arthur Kill, according to Hansen, a resident of Brooklyn.

But the DEP is just moving into the skimmer arena — and to hear Hansen and Scamardella discuss the vessels, there can’t be enough of them clearing the waterways. It’s probably in their best interests, as skimmer captains, to promote the SV Piping Plover as much as possible, but the men also appear to have a true love of the environment.

Both the Piping Plover and the Ibis were built in New York by United Marine International, the world’s leading designer of marine trash skimmers.

In addition to making boating safer, cleaning floating trash from the water creates cleaner beaches and protects wildlife. Both men enjoy fishing and boating for sport, and plastics and fish just don’t mix, according to Scamardella, who lives on Long Island. “I once caught a striped bass, about 15 or 20 inches long, and when I pulled out the hook, there was all this plastic in its mouth. I pulled on it, and out came an entire bag with a squid inside. Some fisherman must have through it overboard,” he said, shaking his head. “Some people just don’t think.”

The Piping Plover itself is animal-friendly. It’s slow enough to scare away waterfowl before overtaking them, and crabs are easily thrown back into the water once they’ve been hauled aboard.

The strange contraption — a bizarre mix of conveyors and gates — is regarded with astonished looks by birds and humans alike. The blue and white boat has a pair of “wings” that can open and close to catch litter; a front conveyor, which hauls the stuff up to a holding area; and a rear conveyor, for unloading it onto a barge. Depending on the angle of the conveyors, it can look something like a wheat harvester. The Piping Plover can fill a barge with refuse every two weeks, and picks up about five cubic yards a week, according to Hansen.

“Even the birds look puzzled,” said Hansen, adding that some boaters have gradually gotten used to the skimmer. “It’s nice to hear boaters come over to us and say they’ve noticed the difference. You know you are doing something.”

The boat can go into extremely shallow water — as low as 2 feet — and is run hydraulically, so it never clogs an intake valve. The idea is to catch the refuse close to its source — a series of storm sewer outlets near Paerdegate Basin is one of the major offenders for Jamaica Bay.

“We’re trying to stop garbage before it hits the main channel,” said Hansen, who added that once in the water, bags and bottles can drift for miles. “What we’re cleaning here could hit Staten Island. It’s amazing how garbage can just flow…the wind will blow it anywhere.”