Plastic Tides: Protecting Our Waterways Through Standup Paddling


Plastic Tides Story

Global Partner

Fish Eat PlasticThe story of Plastic Tides began in the Fall of 2012 when teammates Gordon Middleton, Christian Shaw, and Celine Jennison ended up at the same table during a National Geographic Young Explorer Grant workshop held at Cornell University. The ideas were flowing that day and they didn’t waste any time getting to work. Just over a year later the pre-application for the Young Explorers Grant was approved and the project started coming to life.

What began as a desire to combine a passion for water sports and adventure with research and conservation became: Plastic Tides. In the spring of 2014 the team went full steam into planning the first expedition. 10 days on stand up paddleboards, unsupported, circumnavigating the Island of Bermuda. The goal was simple: film for a web series, create live social media, and collect valuable water samples for the scientific community. All to raise awareness about plastic pollution, promote everyday solutions to the issue, and inspire others to do the same. Despite finding out a week before launch that the National Geographic grant was denied the expedition in June was a phenomenal success and the web series can be found the the team website.

Night Paddling Amongst the RocksThe momentum and support brought on by the Bermuda expedition told the team they were on to something so they decided to make Plastic Tides a lasting organization. Once back at home in Ithaca, NY the issue of dangerous plastic microbeads from cosmetic products entering the marine environment came to the forefront of their attention. A Bill banning the beads had been passed unanimously through the New York State Assembly, but was being stalled by the Senate. In other states like Illinois what was once a great Bill became far too lenient, and nearly useless after corporate lobbyist had their way. A legislative push was being organized for 2015, but just not enough people were informed on the issue.

The FuturePlastic Tides decided something needed to be done to protect the waters of Upstate, NY and the rest of the country from these harmful, deliberate, pollutants: The Erie Canal Expedition was born. The plan was for teammates Christian Shaw and Gordon Middleton to paddle 240 Miles from Ithaca to Albany by way of the Erie Canal. Along the route they would be collecting samples with a trawl pulled behind their boards. These samples would be analyzed in collaboration with Dr. Sam Mason at SUNY Fredonia.

Castle IslandThe expedition launched on November 9th and the team enjoyed mild late fall weather for their first three days on the water, but then a streak of unseasonably cold weather brought on by Typhoon Nuri in the N. Pacific descended upon the entire country. For a week they paddled through snow and sleet before finally encountering impassable ice on the Erie Canal a few miles east of Little Falls, NY on November 19th. The expedition was cut short after 180 miles, and although the team did not reach Albany to deliver the message, the trip was great success and the word spread loudly throughout the state.

In early December the team visited the Great Lakes Plastic Pollution Lab at SUNY Fredonia to analyze their samples from the first microbead survey ever of the Finger Lakes or Upstate, NY area. The results were sobering: they found microbeads in Cayuga Lake, Oneida Lake, the Erie Canal, and Mohawk River. Seventy percent of the samples contained one or more beads, and in Cayuga Lake, from which six samples were taken the highest abundance measured was 69,000 beads/km2 with an average of 15,000 beads/km2d.

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