Black Mayonaise

What Exactly Is the Black Mayonnaise at the Bottom of the Gowanus Canal?

Photo by Susan De Vries  by Craig Hubert

There are numerous mysteries about the Gowanus Canal. But the most baffling, not to mention terrifying, is the thick dark sludge that makes it way through the oily waters, that which has been called black mayonnaise.

Aside from its gross name — which is a pretty good descriptor, to be honest — there has rarely been an acceptable explanation of what black mayonnaise is, exactly, and how it is formed. So we reached out to Christos Tsiamis, the EPA’s Senior Project Manager for the Gowanus Superfund cleanup, and asked him to explain.

gowanus canal black mayonnaiseA core sample from the former First Street Basin near the BRT Power Station. Photo via EPA’s Gowanus Canal Facebook Group

Black mayonnaise is the “result of chemical waste that was discharged from the industries that operated along the canal as well as by New York City sewage and street runoff,” wrote Tsiamis in an email.

“The combination of the chemicals and sewage gave the sediment the soft texture of mayonnaise, while the combination of liquid tar from the manufactured-gas plants, petroleum products (such as motor and lubricating oils), decomposed organic matter and sewage gave to this sediment its black color.”

gowanus canal brooklyn superfund sitesPhoto by Hannah Frishberg

A 10-foot-high layer of black mayonnaise lays over the original native sediment at the bottom of the canal. But is it dangerous?

The answer is a resounding yes.

“It contains a multitude of chemicals (in the dozens) many of which are toxic and dangerous to human health upon repeated exposure or from consumption of fish that is caught at the canal (or at close proximity to it) over time,” wrote Tsiamis. This was determined by a risk assessment study conducted by the EPA in 2010.

Will the cleanup cleanse the canal of black mayonnaise forever? Two months of dredging, starting in December, is expected to permanently clean the bottom of the canal, according to Tsiamis. Meanwhile, the Gowanus’ two new underground holding tanks are expected to keep a good part of sewage and street run-off from overflowing into the canal during storms. “After the storm passes, the liquid held by these tanks will be pumped for treatment to the city’s treatment facilities,” he said.

Tsiamis says these measures will free the canal of black mayonnaise forever. But the EPA will be checking every five years anyway, just in case the substance inexplicably returns.

Until next time,

Garbage Girl


Jamaica Bay Wasted?


Last weekend, Martin and I paddled our kayaks into Jamaica Bay, checking out the avid birdlife, exploring the piers, dodging the fishing lines, thinking the fishermen can’t really be eating their catch, wondering why the waterline has a black discoloration, and  imagining the passengers watching us from the windows of still low flying planes taking off  from JFK (an airport, home to bird-murdering planes and plane-destroying birds, situated on a wildlife refuge protecting birds is lost on most people).  The flattish shoreline changed to a grassy elevation that was beautiful but somehow seemed odd so we pulled the boats up to a large stack extending vertically from the shore, enclosed by a barbwire fence and warning of flammable conditions. Ah!  We’re standing on a landfill!    This natural/manmade environment often creates a weird, out of place, feeling.  We collected as much litter from the beach as we could stuff into the laundry baskets, large plastic containers, and plaster buckets washed up from I can’t imagine where, planted a discarded red West Indian flag left behind from some celebration and rode the outgoing tides back to Paedergast Basin.
Jamaica Bay is a saline to brackish, nutrient-rich estuary covering about 25,000 acres with a mean depth of 13 feet.  Located on the southern tip of Long Island, the majority of the land is publicly owned by our federal government and New York City.  Gateway National Recreation Area which covers 9,155-acres includes Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Breezy Point. Floyd Bennett Field, Marine Park, Edgemere Park, Jacob Riis Park, Fort Tilden and numerous other fun and historic places to visit. Portions of the wetlands and uplands are part of John F. Kennedy International Airport.  Small areas in the upland buffer around the bay and on the Rockaway Peninsula remain in private residential or commercial ownership.
Jamaica Bay is protected shoreline by the federal Coastal Barrier Resources Act.    The Nature Conservancy recognizes Breezy Point and Fountain Avenue Landfill as Priority Sites for Biodiversity.  The New York State Department of State and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation designated Jamaica Bay as Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitats. The New York City Department of City Planning recognizes it as one of three special natural waterfront areas needing important attention to restore habitats and improve water quality.screen-shot-2014-09-13-at-2-13-15-pm

As part of the New York metropolitan area, Jamaica Bay, the uplands around the bay, and the Rockaway barrier beach, are dominated by urban residential, commercial, and industrial development. 12,000 of the original 16,000 acres of wetlands in the bay have been substantially altered by dredging, land fill, and development.  Virtually the entire watershed of Jamaica Bay is urban, developed land receiving pollution from a variety of sources such as municipal waste water treatment plants, sewer overflows, untreated storm water runoff from the roads and developed areas around the bay (including the de-icing chemicals from the runways at JFK), leachates from Edgemere, Fountain Avenue, and Pennsylvania Avenue Landfills now closed (a combined 400 acres), atmospheric pollution and toxic chemicals from vehicles, airplanes and boats, windblown and discarded trash, and the potential spills from increasing water transport of oil and chemical products. All of these present and historic inputs of toxins contaminate sediment in parts of the bay which have lethal and sublethal effects on benthic organisms and bioaccumulate up the food chain.

Interaction of nutrients and other gases
between the benthos and other organisms in the water column


The salt marshes of Jamaica Bay are prime habitat for migratory birds and wildlife.   The area once enjoyed a worldwide reputation for oysters and a vigorous fishing industry.  A majority of the waters and marshes have been protected since 1972 as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.  The marshlands are diminishing at the rate of approximately 40 acres per year, most likely from rising sea levels, more vigorous storms and tons of nitrogen discharged into the bay every day. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection  under Mayor Bloomberg installed enhanced treatment measures and some progress is being made.

Jamaica Bay is also located adjacent to the confluence of the New York Bight and New York Bay.  This is the turning point of the primarily east-west oriented coastline of southern New England and Long Island and the north-south oriented coastline of the mid-Atlantic. This unique geographic location concentrates marine and estuarine species migrating between the New York Bight and the Hudson and Raritan River estuaries.  Over 330 species of special emphasis and listed species are found here seasonally or year round, incorporating 48 species of fish and 120 species of birds.  The center of the bay is dominated by calm to extreme subtidal open water with numerous low-lying islands, salt marshes, intertidal flats, and uplands, all important for nesting waterbirds.

1. Hudson River, 2. East River, 3. Long Island Sound, 4. Newark Bay, 5. Upper New York Bay, 6. Lower New York Bay, 7. Jamaica Bay, 8. Atlantic Ocean

How You Can Help:

Until next week!

Garbage Girl

Waste Paper Won’t Go Away

Can you believe these are still called waste paper baskets?!

Can you believe we still have waste paper baskets?   At least these are made from waste plastic!

When I was growing up, our swim team collected newspapers. We loaded our bundles onto a truck once a week and one of our parents drove us 25 miles north of Albuquerque to a recycling facility where they paid us $.50 a bundle.  As kids, we marveled at this cool way to make money on garbage.  That was over 4 decades ago!

Paper recycling has now become a household activity.  In Brooklyn, we separate paper from the rest of our household waste. We put it in clear plastic bags for curbside pick up once a week. Our trusted NYSD delivers it to Material Reclamation Centers for sorting and bundling. It is then sold to paper recycling centers who pulp it, de-ink it and turn it into more paper related products.

So! I was really surprised to learn that paper’s contribution to our landfills has been holding steady at 40% since the 1970’s!  What happened to the paperless computer age?  Apparently, the economics of paper recycling gets bogged down when we can’t consistently close the loop for “post consumer” recycled paper products getting bought again by the consumer, or  more simply put: supply vs demand.   In addition, technology is making it possible for every household with a computer and a printer to fancy themselves a publisher; able to happily generate massive volumes of self printing with ease.

When 365  New York Times get sealed into a landfill, they are the equivalent in volume to 18,660 aluminum cans and 14,969 Big Mac styrofoam clamshells, so it is even more shocking news that they don’t biodegrade!!  Biodegradation is the process in which insects, worms, fungi and microscopic bacteria break down a natural material and recycle its nutrients back into the soil.  Paper easily biodegrades in compost piles.  However, in a densely packed and sealed landfill it can’t get the moisture or oxygen necessary  to start the decomposition process where clostridia or related bacteria produce enzymes called cellulases that break the cellulose down into smaller molecules or sugars.  These sugars get fermented by acetogenic bacterias and produce organic acetic acid. Then other bacterias known as methanogens convert the acetic acid into methane.  Since landfills produce tons of methane, why isn’t it a byproduct of biodegrading paper?  The University of Arizona’s, now famous, The Garbage Project, which has been analyzing our garbage since 1973, discovered that only one of their encounters with the prized and sought after grey slime was from biodegradation.  This occurred while they were excavating  at Fresh Kills; a landfill in New York City.  Much more on that in future blogs!  (they actually found a newspaper they could identify from 1949)  You can read more about this valuable work in Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy


So! Decades after we became a society conscious of waste paper’s value and the natural resources required to produce the virgin product, we are discarding more waste paper than ever and we are challenged to make reuse an economically consistent business model!

Ways You Can Help

  • Look for and buy Post Consumer Recycled paper products and packaging. You can tell by the grey color of the backside.
  • Carefully consider how products are packaged when purchasing any consumer item.
  • Recycle all newspapers, catalogs and magazines.
  • Use the back side of office paper when printing hard copies of non important documents.
  •  Keep recyclable paper clear of oils, glues, food or toxins that will degrade the quality the future paper.
  • Shred personal documents and recycle them. More on this in future blogs!
  • Bring reusable containers to your coffee house. Starbucks will happily fill your coffee container!
  • Single use shopping bags are largely unnecessary. Keep a backup of multi use bags handy for shopping trips.
  • Comments are welcome on this blog! How have you discovered ways to refuse, reuse, recycle and reduce paper?
  • Note the following list for paper items that are and are not accepted by NYSD for recycling.
    • Newspapers, magazines, catalogs ACCEPTED
    • White and colored paper (lined, copier, computer, staples OK) ACCEPTED
    • Mail and envelopes (any color, window envelopes OK) ACCEPTED
    • Paper bags ACCEPTED
    • Wrapping paper ACCEPTED
    • Soft-cover books, telephone books (paperbacks, comics, etc.; no spiral bindings) ACCEPTED
    • Cardboard egg cartons and trays ACCEPTED
    • Smooth cardboard (food and shoes boxes, tubes, file folders, cardboard from product packaging0 ACCEPTED
    • Corrugated cardboard boxes (flattened and tied) ACCEPTED
    • Hardcover books NOT ACCEPTED
    • Napkins, paper towels, or tissues NOT ACCEPTED
    • Soiled paper cups or plates NOT ACCEPTED
    • Paper soiled with food or liquid NOT ACCEPTED
    • Paper with a lot of tape and glue NOT ACCEPTED
    • Plastic- or wax-coated paper (candy wrappers, take-out containers, etc.)NOT ACCEPTED
    • Photographic paper NOT ACCEPTED

    – Learn more at:

Until next week,

Garbage Girl

Does It Have To Look This Bad?


Does It Have To Look This Bad?!!

Does It Have To Look This Bad?

A recent change of jobs in the NY Fashion Industry created free time for long reflective walks from my home in Clinton Hill Brooklyn to Prospect Park and back home again.  On these walks my never quiet inner critic became disgusted by the appearance of everyone’s garbage cans in front of their homes.  Day after day, the critic got louder so along came my camera to mugshot the offending objects.  30 years of fashion problem solving for production set me up to think I could improve on this curbside blunder!   Our Waste Matters~ Cans with a Conscience!!