Beachcombing has long been one of my favourite outdoor activities.
Since I was a little kid I’ve enjoyed wandering along shorelines of all types, staring down at the ground or into the shallows to see what exciting treasures I can spot. From shiny spiraling sea snail shells scattered in sand, to cryptic chitons, anemones, and sea cucumbers hiding in rocky crevices, shorelines are full of living things that somehow thrive in the interface between land and sea. There are also hints of the abundant life beyond the low tide mark and below the surface: swaths of nutrient-rich kelp that wash ashore after storms, jellies that couldn’t overcome tidal forces, and the carapaces (upper shells) of subtidal crab. Yet among all these ocean treasures lurks a formidable foe that poses a threat to the coastal and marine life that depends on the oceans. Plastic, that endlessly useful — but also just plain endless — material that has become central to modern life, is invading our shorelines and our oceans.
The issue of plastics in the marine environment is getting a lot of attention these days, both locally and around the world. BBC Earth’s recent Blue Planet II series shone a spotlight on the impact of plastics in the ocean, and National Geographic is running a multiyear awareness-raising effort called Planet or Plastic? to encourage the reduction of single-use plastics. More locally, municipalities in BC are implementing bans on single-use items like plastic bags and straws1, and some individual businesses are voluntarily reducing their reliance on these products.
The Plastic Problem
There is currently a lot of media attention on this issue, prompted by disturbing viral images of turtles choking on straws, seahorses latching onto plastic q-tips, or birds engulfed in plastic bags. Scientific research on marine plastic pollution more than supports these concerns — and like those provocative images, the research results are overwhelming.
Plastic is the most common type of litter found in the ocean, sometimes comprising up to 90% of floating marine litter. Impacts have been recorded for over 500 marine species, through ingestion, entanglement, or smothering, and this number may keep rising as more research is conducted and more plastic is produced. Plastic is eaten by most seabird species (those that spend most of their time at sea, like albatross, shearwaters, and petrels) as well as most individual birds —one study predicts that by 2050 virtually every seabird worldwide will be eating plastic. It is also commonly eaten by sea turtles: plastic is found in the stomachs of most dead sea turtles (50-80%) that are examined, and jellyfish-like plastic bags are the item most often identified. Plastic pieces of varying sizes and origins are even found in fish and shellfish in grocery stores, though the implications of this for human health and food safety are currently not well known.
Given the rise of both media coverage and research on marine plastic pollution, it was no surprise that it was this year’s World Oceans Day theme. This problem has grabbed my attention in recent years — the evidence can pile up before my eyes when visiting a beach, and it’s something I feel I can take measureable action on in my daily life — so I was excited to address the theme for the Conservancy’s Ocean’s Day shoreline cleanup event.
A very different kind of beachcombing
So one chilly and overcast “June Gloom” morning Michael Dunn and I visited Piggott Bay to see what non-natural debris had washed up since the annual Earth Day cleanup, in preparation for the Oceans Day event. We weren’t sure what to expect, as 141 kilograms of plastics and other debris had been cleaned up at Piggott and Gallagher Bays just two months prior2, but perhaps some spring storms had washed more litter ashore.
We didn’t find much at first, but Michael had recently spotted some small pieces of styrofoam and plastic mixed in with the tree needles, bark, and other bits of nature that pile up among the driftwood at the top of the beach, so we honed in on that area for a closer look. Before we knew it, we were immersed in a very different kind of beachcombing. Small pieces of plastic, including microplastics — tiny pieces measuring less than 5 mm across — were everywhere we looked, mixed in with organic matter and embedded in the worn grain of the logs. There were colourful pieces of larger items — straws, cutlery, or bottle caps, perhaps — broken down by time, wear and tear from the ocean, and UV radiation. There were also countless nurdles: lentil-sized plastic pellets used in the manufacturing of almost all plastic products.
Michael and I were equal parts mesmerized and appalled as we combed through natural shoreline material for the unnatural plastic that we could suddenly see everywhere, and becoming more visible the more we looked. Neither of us had encountered nurdles and other microplastics to this degree, especially on a familiar local beach. We tested a few methods of sifting through the sediment, hoping to devise an easy (maybe even fun?) way to separate this tiny plastic scourge, but most of it was so embedded that to remove all the plastic would require removing buckets of natural shoreline as well.
So when our Oceans Day cleanup rolled around we had our willing and wonderful participants target small plastics the best they could, but held off from focusing on just the tiny stuff. After all, every bottle, straw, or lid removed from a shoreline diverts countless microplastics from even forming. While some microplastics are intentionally produced for products like exfoliants and toothpaste3, the greater source may actually be larger products that are gradually broken down. This is reflected in the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup’s 2017 cleanup results — tiny pieces of plastic and foam were by far the most common item cleaned from Canadian shorelines, topping the group’s “Dirty Dozen” list.
Preventing plastic from entering the ocean
And this perhaps is the key takeaway: we can more effectively and efficiently address the issue if we focus our efforts on preventing plastic from entering the ocean in the first place. Half the “Dirty Dozen” items are single-use plastics, including straws, bottles, and bags. This is encouraging, as it means individual consumers can have a positive impact by choosing reusable alternatives to items that are used once then thrown away (and where is “away”?) To take a step further, support businesses that strive to decrease packaging, or ask businesses if they have a plastic reduction strategy. The more you look, the more ways you’ll find to remove plastic from your life. Cleanups are a great start, but wouldn’t it be great if there was nothing to clean up in the first place?
Want to learn more about this issue and potential solutions?
There are many great resources with more information on this issue. Here are a few that I find the most useful, engaging, and inspiring.
- National Geographic: Fast Facts About Ocean Pollution
- Surfrider Foundation: Rise Above Plastics campaign and Plastic Pollution Facts and Figures
- World Oceans Day: Plastic Pollution Resources (infographics, videos, lesson plans, and more!)
- Convention on Biological Diversity: Impacts of Marine Debris on Biodiversity
- World Oceans Day: Plastic Pollution Resources
- National Geographic: A Running List of Action on Plastic
- Plastic Free July: Living Plastic Freeand Action Picker
- Smithsonian:From Beach Trash to Ocean Art
- Time Magazine: 13 Artists Who Turned Ocean Trash Into Amazing Art
- Ocean Optimism
- The strength with which straw bans are implemented needs to be carefully considered, as complete bans can greatly impact disabled citizens who rely on straws and can’t use reusable alternatives.
- Nearly half of this total was composed of just styrofoam and plastic, not counting the various mixed material items that contained plastic or styrofoam. That’s a lot of plastic, given how little these materials weigh compared to metal or glass!
- Canada recently implemented a ban on most products that contain these plastic microbeads.