“The smaller pieces are the most dangerous,” Tom Tokar yelled, standing on the shore along Newark Bay at one end of a 60-yard-long section of beach behind Bayonne High School. Students from his environmental science classes picked through the refuse that the tide washed up, and even though prisoners from a work-release program had removed most of the larger pieces of debris from this area a week earlier, Tokar told the students that there is still plenty of things to find – especially pieces of Styrofoam, which he said are dangerous to local wildlife.
Each student wears white gloves and carries one black bag for trash and one clear plastic bag for those items that might be recyclable.
“What about this?” one student shouted, holding up a golf ball still dripping wet with mud.
“That can be used again,” Tokar hollered back. “Put it in the clear bag.”
This was one of two cleanups where Bayonne students, as part of an education program on the environment, teamed up with the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, which supplied the gloves, bags and other items needed for the cleanup, and also disposed of the waste collected.
“This is our ninth year working with Bayonne students,” said Michael DeFancisci, executive director of the PVSC, who had come down to offer encouragement to the students while workers from PVSC lent a hand with some of the debris.
Students from seventh and eighth grades in the district’s 10 elementary schools worked elsewhere along the Bayonne waterfront as part of the Cleaner & Greener program, while high school students joined Tokar in shifts along this stretch of beach.
The program runs twice a year, one time for two weeks in the fall and then against in the spring under PVSC’s River Restoration program that began in 1998 and covers an area of about 100 miles of waterways.
During that time, the project has removed more than 10,000 tons of debris from Newark Bay, the Passaic River and its tributaries, and has sponsored more than 850 individual cleanups. These are accompanied by classroom lessons through PVSC Outreach Program.
“We collect most of the floatables that wash up on the shore,” DeFancisci said, noting that recently PVSC did a cleanup in Paterson that produced nearly 2,000 tires.
These were recycled to a company that used them to burn for power, other workers said.
“This is our ninth year working with Bayonne students.” – Michael DeFancisci
The idea behind the school program is not merely to remove items that might get into the sewerage system, but also to educate kids about the environment.
“I really want to help the environment,” said Alicia Alexander, who is in the 11th grade and hopes to pursue a career in nursing. “I like the idea of helping clean up the earth.
Overall, however, this is the 16th year in which students have played an active role in environmental cleanup with the Bayonne Cleaner & Greener program, which was started by a Bayonne science teacher, Anna Panayiotou.
The goal of Cleaner & Greener is to empower residents to make Bayonne a model urban community where trees, flowers, shrubs, and natural wildlife can flourish without risk, and the community can remain clean and free of pollution.
While the beach this time has mostly small items left on it for the students to pick up, workers claim that many odd things wash up from the bay. Once they found a motorcycle. Most of the time what the beach collects is glass and plastic bottles, toys, boat-related items and perhaps the most nefarious, pieces of Styrofoam.
“It is very dangerous to the wildlife,” Tokar said. “Seagulls feed their chicks with it, thinking it is food, and it eventually poisons them.”
But the danger doesn’t stop there. Rope, old fishing line and other items also pose serious dangers to the creatures that inhabit the waterways, often causing them to strangle or become ensnared. Some of this washes out into the sea where it hurts sea animals such as dolphins.
Not all of the students in the environmental class intend to pursue careers in medicine or science. Mark Jackson, a student in the 11th grade, hopes to make it in professional football, but says he’s also concerned about the environment.
“I’m in the environmental science class because I’m interested in the environment,” he said.