Trawling Newtown Creek with Parsons Sustainable Systems

Every year, first-year students at The New School's Parsons School of Design go on a Circle Line boat tour of New York City as part of their required Sustainable Systems course. This gives the students a chance to see New York City from its water ways and look at how rivers are integrated into NYC's urban system. They also do a special trip up Newtown Creek. This creek is surrounded by waste management and energy industries. It is also the site of one of the largest oil spills in American history. Barent and Ash took this opportunity to try a trawl designed specifically for this Field Trip.

This trawl is made out of a plastic storage tote with the bottom cut out, steel weight (not yet attached in this image), net, and a hose clamp.

  • Net ~$1.75
  • Plastic Tote ~$2.00
  • Hose Clamp ~$10

= appoximately $14, plus tow rope, weight, and wire.

At first, the boat was going too fast and the trawl was not performing well. However, when the boat crept slowly up Newtown Creek, Barent and Ash trawled quickly to see if the trawl would pick up anything. 

And... indeed it did. You can see the small bits of white styrofoam plastic that the trawl picked up. This was after only about 5 minutes of trawling. 

We will continue to refine this trawl design for future trips in the Sustainable Systems course.

Gowanus Canal Trawling with Sustainable Systems

First-year Parsons students are all required to take a course called Sustainable Systems. The aim of the course is to introduce sustainable systems thinking to the designers of future products, services, and systems.

Barent has been teaching this course since its inception. This year he asked students to make their own trawls out of cheap, readily accessible materials. In order for students to test their trawls, Barent brought his class to the Gowanus canal. In fact, he brought them to the same spot that the Testing Our Waters team tested trawls as well. The day began at the sustainably designed LEED Platinum Whole Foods Market.

After a brief tour of the rooftop greenhouse (where Gotham Greens grows local produce) and other sustainable features, students prepared their trawls and gathered together the materials they would need to collect the pollution they expected to find in the Gowanus Canal. 

Once the trawls were ready to go, students went canal-side to get the rope they would need to dangle the net into the water and begin trawling. Instructions for how to build the Bridge Trawl are found on our Instructables page.

Pretty soon students were trawling... 

Stagnant water kept the pollution findings smaller the expected, but overall, it was a successful excursion. The students tweeted their process and their findings on twitter on, or shortly after, September 15th, the day we trawled. 

Gowanus Canal Trawling

TRAWLING DESTINATION: 3RD STREET BRIDGE OVER THE GOWANUS

TRAWL TESTED: Bridge Trawl & BUOY Trawl

On a humid and rainy day the Testing Our Waters team met at the Brooklyn Whole Foods (which sports an impressive vegetable garden and is powered by solar panels and vertical axis wind turbines) and prepared to trawl in the infamous Gowanus canal. 

The Gowanus canal has been victim to all manner of pollution, from industrial toxins to residential waste, and has been designated a Superfund site by the EPA. Trawling in this setting meant we had to prepare ourselves a little differently than we had in previous expeditions in order to protect ourselves from the very water we were trawling in! In practice - this meant gloves and a little more caution when examining our findings. 

First up we tested the Bridge Trawl. This is the cheapest and simplest trawl we have designed so far. It is constructed with the rim of a bucket, a paint filter and a plastic bottle (straight out of the recycling bin) filled with rocks and water to weight it down.

The Bridge Trawl worked really well. There was so much debris in the canal that we did lead the trawl so it would "catch" debris. This was not a random sample, this was us trying to see just what floats out the canal. It is hard to see plastic floating by without trying to capture it.

When we raised the trawl it was quite full. Just as in Raritan Bay there were many jelly fish in the waters - another sign of an unhealthy ecosystem. We tried to avoid them as best we could but we were not always successful. 

Ultimately we found a lot of plastic packaging and big blobs of stuff we couldn't identify. Scary stuff.. 

We also tested the Buoy Trawl. We altered the design by adding rocks to weigh down the trawl in an effort to see if it could used off a bridge.

We were a bit apprehensive about how well this trawl would do. Although there was a current it wasn't so fast... yet with the weight the trawl worked. It also picked up a disturbing amount of trash. 

Next we will be designing a trawl that can be dragged behind a kayak or canoe. So stay tuned...

TRAWL FINDS:

East River Trawling

Trawling destination: East River Parkway

TRAWLS TESTED: HARDWARE & BUOY

We trawled at a site right next to the river, just south of Pier 35.

We trawled at a site right next to the river, just south of Pier 35.

80% of marine debris starts in rivers and local waterways. (To read an important scientifc, peer-reviewed article on this matter go here.) Trash is either dumped into rivers due to a lack of better waste management, or, as in the case of NYC, trash winds up in the Hudson or the East river because of a combination of rampant littering and strong storm events that carry litter to the rivers.

On another perfect summer day we went to the East River promenade to test how the hardware and 3-D printed trawl held up when trawling from the side of a river. On the way we immediately saw evidence of larger pieces of trash that will eventually be broken down by water movement and sunlight radiation into microplastics. Below, a balloon and broken bits of styrofoam:

 

We started with the 3D trawl and discovered it did not perform well in this setting because there wasn’t a strong enough current to keep the mouth open towards the river current. It bobbed up towards the sky instead:

The hardware trawl did a little better when properly manipulated by the rope. But often ended up wanting to hug the side of the river.

This expedition provided some fuel for brainstorming new trawls in all different kinds of settings. Next, we will be designing a dangle trawl for low bridges with a river or creek flowing underneath. For testing purpose for the dangle trawl, we will use the infamous Gowanus Canal. So stay tuned for that test…

TRAWL FINDS:

On this expedition we did not find anything. All the major bits of plastic we saw were farther out towards the middle of the river. The pieces were big (lots of packaging and plastic bags) but our trawls, as designed, weren't able to trawl so far away from the edge. 

Trawl Test 101

Trawling Destination: Raritan Bay, Keyport, NJ

Departure Point: Pederson's Marina

TRAWLS TESTED: HARDWARE & BUOY

Our first day out on the water this summer was with two of several trawls to be offered by our team here at Testing the Waters. We could not have done this first phase of testing without NY/NJ Baykeeper who generously provided us the boat and people power to make this first outing happen. This organization does really important work that aims to protect, conserve and rehabilitate New York and New Jersey waterways. Make sure to check them out and get involved. We would like to thank Sandra Meola, Captain Pete Cangeloso, and field technician Mitch Mickley for their help and support.

Additionally our cross country support from 5Gyres has been essential to the entire project. What started as a project to create design drawings of their trawls for open source global disbursement, has led to the Testing Our Waters project. The Hardware trawl we tested this expedition was in fact designed by 5Gyres cofounder, Marcus Eriksen, on his return trip to LA from New York City.

Lastly we want to thank the Tishman Environment and Design Center of The New School for enabling us to launch our project with our first grant.

The goal of these excursions is to ascertain the ability of each trawl to remain level with the water surface while being pulled from the boat, and to ensure that the nets are holding onto the trawl (essential to trawling for microplastics successfully) and do not rip. With each excursion we look at how well the trawl remains parallel to the surface and captures debris.

Stepping up to the plate for testing this time are the Hardware Trawl-- 

... and the Buoy Trawl designed for Makers with 3D printing abilities.

First up: The Hardware Trawl goes into the water and we track our location...

Captain Pete kept us at 3 / 4 knots throughout each 15 minute test. The hardware trawl sunk a little bit and may need some adjustments to its design as a result but as a whole we were happy with how it performed. We logged our location and time and pulled it onto the boat.

When on deck of the boat, we thought the 3D trawl was working best, (perhaps grateful it didn't sink). It dove in and out of the water and looked as excited to be in the water as we were. This anthropomorphism did not a good trawl make however. When Professor Roth reviewed the footage to take a closer look at performance, he realized it had too much bounce to suit our purposes. Professor Roth has gone back to the drawing board with this design. Stay tuned for version 2.0.

We did find microplastics in our 2 successful hauls. They are extremely small and difficult to capture on an iPhone camera. Sandra Meola from NY/NJ Baykeeper said that they have have found microplastics EVERY TIME they have trawled for them. You may think that we found is not a lot, however you must take into consideration that what we ultimately found was from just 2 nets we trawled with, 15 minutes at a time. Considering how large Raritan Bay is, it is alarming that we found this much from just trawling for such a short amount of time in such a large body of water.

Ultimately, from a design perspective, the trip was a success and showed Professor Barent Roth and designer Aishwarya Janwadkar what adjustments need to be made for the 2nd iteration of these trawls.

We as a team came back to land with renewed purpose. We learned, and saw, that the environment is in fact not healthy. Field technician Mitch Mickley taught us that the large amount of jellyfish we were seeing in the water is an indicator of an environment in distress. Normally these jellyfish would have predators, but with sea temperature rising and pollution into the oceans increasing, ecosystems and animal behavior are changing. In our local waterways, jellyfish do well, their predators do not. This is a trend we see in many different locations: it’s often the animals that are harmful to humans that benefit from the negative impact human activity has on the environment.

We believe that with research and community building we can reverse this path. That is one of our goals at Testing Our Waters.

TRAWL FINDS:

Dead Horse Bay - Project Launch

Deadhorse Bay located at the southern end of Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn

Deadhorse Bay located at the southern end of Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn

As inspiration and motivation for the launch of Testing Our Waters, professor and founder Barent Roth and students Aishwarya Janwadkar and Taina Guarda visited Brooklyn’s Dead Horse Bay on Barren Island, located east of Manhattan beach by the bridge that goes to the Rockaways. It is nicknamed as such because in the late 19th century horse rendering facilities were located here. It is also the site of an uncapped landfill dating back to 1953 when household belongings of poor people displaced by Robert Moses’ highway plans were dumped here.

Likely a horse bone found buried in the sand.

Likely a horse bone found buried in the sand.

We prepped ourselves for the field trip by watching an ABC News documentary piece called Dead Horse Bay: New York's Hidden Treasure Trove of Trash.

The ABC piece gives a brief history of Barren island and introduces the complicated nature trash can have: where one person sees historical artifacts that should be left alone, another collects the objects for artistic creation, and all the while toxins left from old batteries and decaying plastic continue to pollute the bay.

 

A shoe found in the sand - most likely dating back to the 1950s given the style and history of the bay.

A shoe found in the sand - most likely dating back to the 1950s given the style and history of the bay.

Given our concern with microplastics and ocean pollution, we were shocked by the amount of trash that is leaching harmful chemicals into the water. There is not just old trash, but what is likely newer trash as well.

The two barrels pictures above exhibit extensive fouling  - when marine life attaches itself to objects. Fouling often has negative consequences. When marine life attaches itself to smaller pieces of plastic, the added weight can cause the debris to sink. Plastic left at the bottom of the ocean will last even longer than normal plastic because of the cold temperature and the lack of sunlight which usually degrades plastic into smaller and smaller pieces. In addition, fouling onto floating pieces can transfer organisms miles away from their natural habitat into areas where they can cause unchecked damage to local ecosystems.


Equally shocking was the amount of trash that may still end up in the waterways as the old landfill erodes because of rising seawater and strong storm events. Here are various views of the sand bar that is actually buried landfill. 

Cross section of the landfill created by high tide erosion

Cross section of the landfill created by high tide erosion

In addition, there was foreshadowing of an unsustainable way of thinking.

  A bottle labeled “Not to be Refilled”

 

A bottle labeled “Not to be Refilled”

 

Currently, this area is managed by the federal parks system which means that removing the trash for either artistic or cleanup purposes is illegal. We here at Testing Our Waters believe that the area needs to be cleaned because of the harm many of these objects pose to ocean water and marine life health as they degrade.

However, we can’t deny the fascinating quality there is to exploring these historical artifacts. Hopefully a solution can be found where the area is cleaned up but the artifacts are properly stored, with less harm to the environment, for future generations interested in the history of New York City.

Next up we begin our own attempts to mitigate ocean marine debris pollution. Stay tuned as we prototype DIY trawls, tweak their designs, release them to the public and create a mobile application to connect a community of citizen scientists concerned with the affect garbage is having on our beautiful oceans.