Findings from the Park Over Plastic Initiative
Guest contributors Carrie Roble, Anna Koskol, and Tina Walsh of Hudson River Park discuss the research-driven Park Over Plastic initiative and how Knology researchers helped advance its efforts.
Hudson River Park’s 400-acre Estuarine Sanctuary is a natural resource of national importance. Our Sanctuary waters and the ecological abundance they support inform the Park’s mission as well as robust science and education programs that reach more than 30,000 people annually. Our work to protect and restore the Sanctuary has shown us the growing harm that plastic pollution causes our waterways. As stewards of the Sanctuary, we are committed to understanding and addressing this issue through research, community engagement, and coordinated action.
Over the past decade, the Park’s River Project created two research projects to monitor the scale of the plastic pollution problem in our waters. Volunteers at marine debris cleanups have removed and catalogued over 29,000 plastic pieces from Park shorelines since 2015 and contributed findings to NOAA Marine Debris Program’s national dataset. Since 2016, our River Project has also conducted the longest running Hudson River microplastic research study in partnership with CUNY Brooklyn College. Marine debris cleanups and microplastic research both provide meaningful opportunities for members of the public and local college students to become stewards of the Estuary and participate in local efforts to understand plastic pollution.
Seeing the impact of plastic pollution through our research, we strove to continue building awareness and action. In 2019 we launched Park Over Plastic (POP), a Park-wide initiative to reduce single-use plastics and improve the health of our waterways. The POP initiative aims to eliminate single-use plastics by implementing phased plastic reduction, strategic messaging, educational outreach, and expanded Park research. This initiative and the removal of plastics throughout the Park’s footprint involve complex operational and behavioral dynamics. The Park is committed to providing leadership in these areas.
Sustained participation is key to the success of POP. We proactively seek ways to educate and support our Park community to choose plastic alternatives and minimize plastic waste. To hold ourselves accountable and measure our progress on meeting plastic reduction goals, we worked with social science researchers at Knology to study the impact of POP.
Knology focused their study on three main POP audiences: Park staff, tenants, and visitors. To evaluate outcomes of POP among these audiences, Knology led a series of interviews and questionnaires during POP’s first two years. This process invited our community to share their views and behaviors around plastic waste to help shape the future of the initiative. Additionally, our River Project staff conducted annual waste audits to assess the presence of plastics in our Park waste stream. The findings from Knology’s study of the initiative have been memorialized in the Park Over Plastic report, Findings from an Initiative to Reduce Plastic Use in Hudson River Park, which we are pleased to be sharing with broad audiences.
One of the most encouraging findings from the report is that the majority of Park staff, tenants, and visitors interviewed were committed to supporting the POP initiative. Additionally, more than 75% of Park visitors surveyed indicated they strongly agree that helping protect the environment is a motivating reason to reduce plastic waste. We see this as evidence that with targeted educational messaging, increased community involvement, and continued resource sharing, we can expand the reach of the POP initiative and cultivate a network of change makers to help reduce plastic pollution.
Conducting a Park-wide waste audit allowed us to better understand geographic and tenant- specific challenges, as well as opportunities for improving recycling best practices and waste management as a whole in the Park. For example, during the waste audit, we found a Pier 84 recycling bin bag that held over 50% of non-recyclable materials. When contaminants are found in recycling bags, this can cause delays and complications at recycling facilities. The findings from the waste audit tell us that Park visitors need convenient options for recycling and improved messaging to inform all about the importance of separating waste. With increased pairing of trash and recycling bins, strategic bin placement, and continued education, visitors of all demographics can help decrease contamination.
As we incorporate the findings and recommendations from this paper into refining the future of POP, we look forward to continuing conversations with our stakeholders who have shared valued feedback in support of the Park’s sustainability goals. We are sincerely grateful for all of those who shared input even through the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. By providing resources such as this report, our hope is that we may inspire other parks and organizations in New York City and beyond to apply the Park Over Plastic model to their business and join us in the effort to reduce plastic. Together we can fight plastic pollution and collectively better protect our local waterways and environment for years to come.
Photo credit: Max Guliani of Hudson River Park
Note: A version of this article was also published on Hudson River Park's website.