Swap Your Dock for Cleaner Rivers!

DID YOU KNOW? Many docks use plastic foam to stay afloat.

DID YOU KNOW? Plastic foam breaks off the dock and pollutes our rivers?

Expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) is better known by the brand name Styrofoam®. We’ll simply call it plastic foam. While plastic foam is commonly used as packaging and for disposable containers, due to its low cost it’s also a popular option for dock floatation along the Connecticut River and tributaries.

However, as plastic foam degrades and breaks apart, it pollutes our waterways and chokes our wildlife. Even worse, as plastic foam dock floats break apart, docks become structurally compromised and sink lower in the water and closer to the ground, increasing contact with objects and compounding the problem. 

Unfortunately, plastic foam is common in aquatic environments. It’s one of the most persistant types of waste collected at the Source to Sea Cleanup. In 2018, volunteers removed 1.76 cubic yards of polystyrene from our waterways, including 96 pieces of polystyrene dock floats. Plastic foam is difficult to clean up because it breaks into small bits that are nearly impossible to collect. 

To avoid pollution from plastic foam dock floats, dock owners may consider encapsulating foam in polyethylene or other surface covering. Another option is to install closed cell polyethylene or dedicated plastic float drums. 

55 gallon drums are an inexpensive and effective alternative to plastic foam floatation. These drums do not require any plastic foam filling, resist wear and tear, and can be repurposed at little to no cost from large beverage companies such as Coca-Cola. Floating docks built from 55 gallon drums can also be purchased as kits and assembled separately. 

Compressed air in high density polyethylene provide a sustainable flotation option, as the docks are heat sealed with roughly 200 pounds of compressed air within. Such docks are so durable that some even come with a lifetime warranty.  

Un-encapsulated plastic foam is vulnerable to “beading off” when it comes into contact with rocks, boats, wind, and animals. Muskrats, waterfowl, marine borers, and other aquatic life dig into foam and dislodge microplastics, which enter the ecosystem, eventually making their way into the ocean. Similarly, over time, and usually within 15 years, plastic foam in docks breaks down due to weathering from contact with hard objects and exposure to winds and waves. 

The US Army Corps found that when plastic foam is used for dock floatation, fish and wildlife ingest the particles and it leaches chemicals such as benzene, styrene and ethylene into the water. These chemicals are acutely toxic to freshwater aquatic life in small doses. Reactions between plastic foam and chemicals can create a thick, flammable sludge in the water. Additionally, the physical degradation of plastic foam floatation threatens wildlife, as plastic beads clog the airways of species and enter their digestive tracts, preventing them from absorbing vital nutrients. Finally, it is estimated that plastic foam may NEVER FULLY BREAK DOWN in the natural environment, remaining a threat to aquatic ecosystems forever.

Expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) has long been the most popular flotation choice for docks. Plastic foam is a petroleum-based material and is manufactured using the chemical styrene. As a light-weight material, plastic foam is often used in packing materials and associated with Styrofoam®, a trademarked brand from the Dow Chemical Company. 

Some marine contractors, recycling companies, and garbage haulers will recycle plastic foam — contact your local waste hauler to find out their policies. One dock company creates a module that is roto molded from recycled polyethylene and is secondarily supported by 80 pressurized 2-litre plastic soft drink bottles. Finally, plastic foam particles can be combined with a solvent and used as recycled asphalt to patch potholes on roads and highways. 

CRC is leading the effort to restrict the use of plastic foam dock flotation throughout the Connecticut River basin. We will lead efforts for Rulemaking by Petition in each state, which requires relevant environmental departments to review rules for restricting plastic foam floatation. Finally, CRC will launch an outreach campaign to educate dock owners and the public about plastic foam flotation harms and alternatives. Are you a dock owner and want to help out? Contact us

Plastic foam dock floats pollute our rivers as they degrade.

Plastic foam is a danger to wildlife.

There are plenty of better dock float options that keep our rivers cleaner!