These days it seems like you can’t visit the beach or take a walk along the shoreline without spotting refuse of some kind: plastic bags, old shoes, rope, an increasing amount of single-use face masks, and Styrofoam, Styrofoam, Styrofoam everywhere!

Cleaning up beach plastics can sometimes feel like a hopeless task, with no end in sight. People often feel a sense of ineffectiveness as they bag plastic up and send it off to the landfill to continue its 1000 year cycle of breaking down into microplastics. 

But did you know that a landfill isn’t the only option anymore? Did you know that there are recycling programs in place, and more to come, where ocean plastics can have a new life as kayak rudders, garden boxes, furniture and more? 

Beach plastics at Piggot Bay.

Ocean Plastics Recycling

Ocean Legacy, a Canadian nonprofit organization focussed on the ocean plastic emergency, is initiating a plastics economy that you can take part in. From Richmond, B.C. all the way down to Panama, Ocean Legacy has been working to shift the plastics issue into a sustainable and restorative economy, and upcycling is a huge part of that. 

Beach plastics brought to collection points or directly to the recycling facility in Richmond (which is the first and only facility of its kind), are melted down and formed into Legacy Plastic; high grade plastic pellets which are then used to create a new product. Things come full circle: using QR codes and Radio Frequency Identification, plastics can be tracked through the system so the end product can be traced back to the very place where its plastic material was collected. As Ocean Legacy’s Josh McClean pointed out in a recent Zoom presentation with the Conservancy, these products can tell a powerful community-based story. “If you put a park bench right on the shoreline, as a part of a city’s infrastructure, this can really educate people; it’s not just a bench, it’s a bench with a story letting people know that the shoreline cleanup work is helping to keep the community clean and is providing them with this structure they get to use as well.” There are currently four collection depots in operation along the B.C. coast, situated next to or within municipal landfills to make landfill diversion more accessible for the everyday user. For us on Mayne Island, bringing materials into the Richmond facility is the easiest option. 

Garden boxes made from Legacy Plastic. Photo from Ocean Legacy website.

Beach Plastics Spotlight: Expanded Polystyrene (EPS)

In What We Heard on Marine Debris in B.C., a 2020 report conducted by Nanaimo MLA Sheila Malcolmson, expanded polystyrene (known as Styrofoam) is listed as one of the top six marine debris issues in the province. It breaks down into tiny pellets that are nearly impossible to fully clean up, attracts pollutants from the environment and is commonly mistaken as food by marine animals, interfering with digestion and bioaccumulating pollutants up the food chain.

Pervasiveness of plastics and microplastics in the environment have landed plastic manufactured items such as expanded polystyrene onto the federal government’s Toxic Substances List.

Expanded polystyrene and its counterpart, extruded polystyrene, collected at Piggot Bay during an Oceans Day event.

Where Does it Come From?

The main source of Styrofoam pollution comes from the marine industry, where it is used as flotation for docks, aquaculture facilities, and other marine infrastructure. Docks that were constructed with open Styrofoam floatation, which became popular in the 1960s, have a lifespan of about 20 years before they significantly lose floatation. A derelict dock washes ashore about once a year on Mayne Island and the resulting Styrofoam pollution can be immense. As there are currently no government programs in place for helping remove these docks or dealing with the clean up, it falls on community members to volunteer their time and effort to break down the structure and clean up the Styrofoam. 

Back in 2020, Campbell Bay Beach was blanketed in Styrofoam pollution an arms length deep in places! After a strong community outpouring of help, organized by a nearby property owner, the majority of the foam was cleaned up, including the removal of foam from the epicenter of activity: a dock, the cement and rebar structure of which is still on the beach. A look along the shoreline of the beach will show you just how difficult it is to clean up those pesky pellets, as they are still present: imbedded in the roots of trees, mixed in with organic matter, and clinging to the rockfaces.

Dock construction is now shifting toward encased polystyrene foam with a lifespan of 60 years, or air-filled floats, which are more environmentally friendly. If you have an old dock that is degrading, look into replacing the floatation or removing the dock from the water before disaster hits. Though there are no government programs to assist with removing docks from the water, there are private companies who will haul it away for you. 

When it comes to Styrofoam, Ocean Legacy can take it in if it’s not too biofouled (Styrofoam floatation is often colonized by marine life such as mussels, tubeworms and seaweed, and this can get in the way of recycling).

The process of removing the degraded Styrofoam from the dock was an onerous one. Campbell Bay, 2020.

A New Way to Approach Cleanup

Hopefully knowing that beach plastics can be upcycled through Ocean Legacy, you will feel more inspired to bring along a collection bag on your next beach stroll, or feel excited to join in on a community beach clean up. 

This year’s Annual Beach Clean up, run by the Mayne Island Conservancy and the Mayne Island Recycling Society, is on April 28th at 1:30pm. Refuse is collected by neighbourhood crews and sorted at the recycling center into two categories: landfill and Ocean Legacy recycling. Join us!


Gin · April 11, 2023 at 11:54 am

Thank you Justine, for this incredibly informative article!
I’m so happy to hear that ocean plastic is being upcycled into useful items!

Now, if only we humans could stop using our oceans as trash dumps!!

    Justine Apostolopoulos · April 11, 2023 at 11:57 am

    Thank you, Gin!
    It’s definitely a great development and yes, we absolutely need to work on stopping plastic at the source!

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