November 9, 2014

Cornellians Paddleboard Down Erie Canal for Pollution Research

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Seeking to research plastic pollution in the Erie Canal, two Cornellians began paddleboarding from Ithaca to Albany on a 10-day-long expedition Sunday.

The expedition is part of a project that began in early 2014 called Plastic Tides, which aims to raise awareness of plastic pollution through research and outreach. As part of this mission, team leader Christian Shaw ’13 and videographer Gordon Middleton ’14 are studying microbeads — small plastic beads often found in exfoliating cleansers or other cosmetic products — in the Erie Canal’s waters.

Microbeads are often washed down drains when products containing the beads are used and can seep into waterways, where they are detrimental to aquatic life, according to Shaw. Plastic Tides is hoping to use this expedition to find out how contaminated the waterways are by analyzing water samples.

“These plastics essentially act like a sponge and accumulate toxins,” Shaw said. “Toxins are [in the Canal] in very dilute amounts; these little pieces of plastics soak that up and concentrate it.”

Shaw and Middleton are completing their entire journey from Ithaca to Albany on two stand-up paddleboards, according to Shaw. They are carrying all 10 days’ worth of food with them — much of it from their sponsors, Cliff Bar and Backpacker’s Pantry.

“We’re going to be camping on the river, and we can actually sleep on the boards,” Shaw said.

According to Shaw, the ultimate goal of the expedition’s research is to end the use of microbeads in consumer products.

“We’re pushing for really strong legislation to get those microbeads banned from products,” Shaw said.

According to Shaw, the footage of the expedition will be recorded by Middleton and produced into a video series or documentary for the Plastic Tides website to raise awareness for plastic pollution.

“We are a media organization at the heart,” Shaw said. “We create media to generate awareness, and along the way we do research.”

One of the expedition’s main goals is to garner support for a petition being circulated 5Gyres, an organization that supports campaigns for clearing the planet of plastic microbeads. The petition asks signers to support “local, state and national bans” on microplastics in “all consumer products wherever they are used as additive that can enter our environment.”

This expedition will be the second for Plastic Tides, which completed a similar project in Bermuda earlier this year, according to Shaw. Though the organization was founded less than a year ago, Shaw says it has increased its research capacity and expanded outreach efforts to several local schools and programs. Still, Shaw says that he has high hopes for the organization’s continued growth.

“Our goal is to keep doing bigger and better expeditions and going into more remote places,” Shaw said.