“Every year we have more and more kids coming,” said KT Torello of the Bayonne Police Athletic League, who joined a 24-student cleanup crew that took on the area around Midtown Community School and PAL on 24th Street. “This younger generation is coming up behind us, and we need to plan so we’re not leaving them with a mess.”
Jacob Quinones, 8, a Boy Scout with Troop 19 who participated in the cleanup, agreed. “You have to keep the earth clean and make sure trees are not dying,” he said, adding that trees are important because they inhale the carbon dioxide humans exhale, and exhale the oxygen humans inhale.
“These kids are very conscious of the earth now,” said Torello.“They’re very intelligent and aware of their surroundings.”
About 60 other groups spread out across five square miles of the city, from Dennis Collins Park at the southern tip of Bayonne to Rutkowski Park and the 45th Street Light Rail station to the city’s north. In the afternoon, the city hosted an Earth Day celebration at 16th Street Park, where a DJ played music, kids played games, and adults relaxed after a physically strenuous morning of cleaning.
“These kids are very conscious of the earth now.” – KT Torello
Community collaboration on this kind of scale helps to create for residents a sense of agency over the city’s future and a shared stake in its health – necessary building blocks for the environmental movement.
The sheer amount of trash collected over the course of a single day – 13,000 pounds– is evidence of a serious environmental hazard to the region’s water and ecological system. Bayonne’s old combined-sewage-overflow system accumulates plastics that are either thrown on the ground or overflowing from garbage cans. The peninsula has more than 30 outflows where sewage drains during times of intense precipitation, and where plastics and other debris that get into the sewage system are effectively transplanted.
The bucolic shoreline along Rutkowski Park, for instance, regularly turns into a bed of multi-colored plastics. In response, the Bayonne Nature Club has been hosting regular cleanups of Rutkowski Park, Lefante Way, and Dennis Collins Park. Cleanup crews reported a higher number of tires and wood debris that floated onto the shores this year than last.
Meanwhile, plastic bags sold at grocery and retail stores can float into the city’s surrounding waterways or into preserved nature, disrupting ecosystems for birds that use trees to nest, and fish that can’t escape from the water. In the ocean, plastics build into gyres in the center of the ocean. The one in the Pacific Ocean is three times the size of France.
“I see plastics floating everywhere. It’s horrible for the fish,” said Ramon Veloz, a Dominican-born local business owner and frequent fisherman. He docks his boat on 5th Street and takes it out into New York Harbor and the Hackensack River. Lately, he said, stripers have been swimming down the Hudson River.
“They eat plastics. You see it in their stomachs. It’s so sad,” said Veloz. “Over time we really need to get rid of plastics as much as possible. We should join other cities and give it a try to have no more plastic bags. We can start with the big businesses and move your way down.”
Some in the community have voiced support for a ban on the sale of plastic bags, but many are reluctant to take that kind of step and prefer to focus on reducing littering.
For the local government, Earth Day is as much about community engagement as it is environmentalism. It’s been a prerogative of Mayor James Davis in the last four years to leverage local government to get people out of their homes to work together toward a common goal. That goal is always to create a better community. In this case, it’s to create a cleaner one.
“This cleanup is supposed to bring awareness that we all need to help in order to keep our city clean,” said Davis at the post-cleanup celebration. “You really hope that in the future we can begin something like a [plastic ban]. It really only takes a few communities to show the rest of the world that anyone can do it.”
Rory Pasquariello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.