Plastic pollution pileup on Canada’s beaches exposes environmental policy gaps
Thousands of kilograms of plastic garbage are piling up on the seabed and on Canada’s shores, but the government doesn’t yet have a domestic strategy to tackle marine debris.
When Zoe Jordan walks her dog on beaches on the west coast of Vancouver Island, she sees water bottles, styrofoam and other junk lying on the shore. She picks up what she can on her daily walks, throwing it in her own garbage can or in bins at trail heads.
For Jordan, like many residents of the twin towns of Tofino and Ucluelet, B.C., clearing trash from the beach is a routine activity. Day by day, locals collect a small share of the plastic polluting the world’s oceans as it washes up onto their shores in and around the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. The spectacular beauty of the region, where blustery waves crash onto beaches at the feet of towering trees, attracts more than one million tourists a year.
On a grey morning earlier this year, Jordan, who owns a bakery and cafe in the heart of Ucluelet, opens the trunk of her SUV to reveal dozens of water bottles she picked up during a midday walk at a local beach. They are cracked and dusty from exposure to the sun and salty waves. She pulls out a chunk of styrofoam from behind them, picking off small circular chunks with her fingers. “It breaks into these tiny little pieces and that’s what fish are eating,” she explains.
Data from Surfrider Pacific Rim, an environmental group, hints at the scale of the problem. In 2017, volunteers on their organized cleanups of the region’s beaches gathered more than 20 tonnes of trash, including more than 35,000 pieces of plastic and 20,500 hunks of styrofoam. Across Canada, volunteers for the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup have cleared more than 13,000 kilograms of litter in 2018 so far.
This debris represents a sliver of a global problem. In 2014, scientists estimated that there were at least 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing nearly 250 million kilograms, floating in the oceans. With the world’s longest coastline and three oceans at its borders, Canada is particularly exposed to the problem. But the federal government doesn’t currently have a domestic plan to tackle the issue, leaving volunteer-driven groups like Surfrider at the front lines.
Canada has made international commitments to combat marine debris at the United Nations, and also promised to lead international action on global plastic pollution when Canada hosts this June’s G7 summit in Quebec. But what these promises look like within Canada’s own borders is unclear.
Canada “does not currently have a comprehensive, cohesive domestic strategy” for marine debris, according to an email from Marilyne Lavoie, spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (ECCC). But in 2018 and 2019, “ECCC will work with provinces and territories, municipalities, indigenous communities, industry and civil society … to develop a national zero plastic waste commitment and strategy that complements its G7 efforts.”
More than 11,500 people have signed a petition asking the government to develop a policy that includes permanent, dedicated and annual funding for cleaning up marine debris.
When The Discourse asked Environment Minister Catherine McKenna how she would respond, she did not comment directly on how the federal government planned to handle existing pollution or respond to the petitioners’ call for dedicated resources for clearing marine debris.
However she did note that ocean health would be among the focuses at the G7 summit. “We know that part of that is stopping plastic, plastic waste in particular, from getting into our oceans,” she said.
“First of all we have to do much better when it comes to recycling and looking at how we have a real circular economy,” McKenna added, before explaining that Canada is also looking into helping improve waste management in countries with poor systems that are responsible for the majority of plastic dumped into the ocean.
In contrast, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration established a marine debris program more than a decade ago, in 2005. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also has a trash-free waters initiative that funds projects to prevent trash from entering waterways and researches the effects of marine debris.
Canada’s ocean commitments: key points
- Canada has signed onto various international commitments to tackle marine debris. In 2015, Canada signed onto the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, which include a goal to prevent and significantly reduce marine debris by 2025, and in 2017, Canada joined the U.N.’s Clean Seas Campaign.
- Domestically, the government has pledged to designate 10 per cent of Canada’s marine and coastal areas as marine protected areas by 2020.
- In 2016, Prime Minister Trudeau launched a $1.5-billion Ocean Protection Plan to protect the ocean and improve marine safety alongside Indigenous and coastal communities. But the plan doesn’t include measures related to plastic pollution.
- In June 2017, the federal government published regulations that prohibit all microbeads, a sort of microplastic, in toiletries and some health products by July 2019.
- The Department of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard also identified microplastics as a research priority from 2017 to 2020, and is funding a variety of projects to better understand the impact of microplastics on aquatic life.
As the Canadian government figures out its strategy, plastic is accumulating at the bottom of the Arctic ocean and turning up in the stomachs of ducks in Atlantic Canada. On B.C.’s remote beaches, layers of plastic debris can pile up for months and years without being picked up, according to groups that clear debris on beaches accessible only by boat or air along Vancouver Island and in Haida Gwaii. They have reported seeing toothbrushes, broken dolls and fluorescent light bulbs, as well as gear from marine industries, including buoys, tags from crab traps, bright ropes and nets, styrofoam and crates.
In January, The Discourse visited Bartlett Island, a small uninhabited island 15 kilometres from Tofino with one side exposed to the Pacific, with Surfrider Pacific Rim and Lennie John, a skipper from the Ahousaht First Nation. The island’s rocky shoreline was littered with trash, including flip flops, water bottles, giant buoys and styrofoam the size of a boulder.
“It’s overwhelming,” sighs Misty Lawson, a local eco-tour guide who helps run Clayoquot CleanUp, a local cleanup group. Their volunteers counted 900 water bottles on a 100-metre stretch of remote shoreline during a cleanup last year, she says.
Lawson is concerned that costly cleanup efforts, which require barges and helicopters to remove sacks of marine debris from remote beaches, are being left to volunteers who are able to cover only a fraction of Canada’s 243,000-kilometre coastline. “What we’re trying to stress is that it’s a full-time job,” she says.
The global plastic crisis
Each year, at least eight million tonnes of plastic finds its way into the ocean, making up 60 to 90 per cent of global marine debris, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. As much as 80 per cent of this debris originates on land. Litter like plastic bags or water bottles flows to the ocean if it winds up in a storm drain or other waterway leading there. Other debris, such as derelict vessels, fishing gear and styrofoam floats from marine industries, is dumped or lost at sea.
The plastic comes in a variety of sizes, from tiny microplastics too small for the eye to see to massive chunks of industrial styrofoam. Once it’s in the ocean, it may take centuries to break down, harbour up to one million times more chemicals than surrounding water and be mistaken by ocean life for food.
Microplastics, or pieces of plastic less than five millimetres in size, are a growing concern. They are created when the elements break down pieces of plastic, but may also be small to begin with. A range of everyday products contain microplastics that find their way into the ocean through wastewater streams. Many clothes, for example, release plastic microfibres into wastewater streams when they’re washed. Such particles have been discovered in all three of Canada’s surrounding oceans, including in shellfish on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, as well as in the Great Lakes, Lake Winnipeg and the St. Lawrence River.
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Provinces and territories are chipping away at the problem with support for beach cleanups and regulations like Ontario’s 2015 Great Lakes Protection Act, which requires the provincial government to monitor and report microplastics. But Canada’s overall “approach has been somewhat ad hoc and patchwork — due in part to the widely variable nature of plastic use and distribution and to the number of jurisdictions with different powers,” according to the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria. Its report on how Canada can address marine pollution recommends a coordinated national response to marine debris.
Even as the Liberal government has championed ocean protection, promising to designate 10 per cent of Canada’s marine and coastal areas as marine protected areas by 2020 and banning microbeads — a sort of microplastic — in toiletries, it has not responded to calls for dedicated funding to clean up plastic that may be found or wind up in those protected areas. In addition, the government’s $1.5-billion Ocean Protection Plan — which was established in 2016 to promote marine safety, responsible shipping and environmental preservation — doesn’t detail plans for or dedicate resources to clearing marine debris.
“For this to be meaningful action, I’d like to see Canada announcing its own national strategy to reduce marine plastic in some detail,” says Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria. “It’s critical for us to act domestically.”
The unknown problems
More than 4,500 kilometres from decision-makers in Ottawa, Kati Martini and her husband run a marine excursion company out of a brick-red building on Tofino’s waterfront. They stopped selling water bottles more than a decade ago after growing concerned about litter they observed while out on tours and beachside walks.
“One of the most painful things to see is big chunks of styrofoam, because you know that they’re just going to keep breaking up and breaking up and breaking up till they get down to these styrofoam kernels that the seabirds pluck off the water mistakenly for food,” says Martini. She uses sightings of sea lions entangled in packing straps, such as six-pack rings, to educate tourists about plastic pollution.
In spite of stories from concerned citizens like Martini, scientific studies and data from beach cleanup groups, scientists don’t know how badly plastic pollution affects Canada’s waters. It’s impossible to tell where Canada’s plastic pollution hotspots are because the country doesn’t have a system to monitor plastic debris, says Jennifer Provencher, a researcher at Acadia University.
Even though the problem has drawn more attention in Western Canada, thanks partly to dramatic stories of debris from Japan’s 2011 Tsunami, the problem might be more intense elsewhere. When Provencher analyzed research on plastic in the stomachs of Northern Fulmars, a type of seabird found on all of Canada’s coasts, she found birds from Nova Scotia were worse off than those from B.C. In the Arctic, the accumulation of microplastics and industrial chemicals is so intense that Max Liboiron, a plastic pollution scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, likens it to “a sink for the world.”
Ultimately, the issues could affect people across Canada, says Provencher. “It doesn’t matter if you’re fishing in the Great Lakes or eating salmon on the West Coast or eating seal in the North or cod in the East, if you have microplastics that are becoming pervasive, that may actually cause insecure food systems.”
Scientists are still trying to understand how eating seafood that has ingested microplastic could affect humans, but they have found that chemicals inside plastics can leach into the flesh of animals that consume them.
“We’re basically conducting experimental research with Mother Nature,” says Peter Ross, director of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Pollution Research Program. He notes that plastics don’t undergo regulatory risk assessments like industrial chemicals would before they’re released into the environment.
For Indigenous Peoples in and around Tofino and Ucluelet, who have already seen stocks of salmon and other traditional seafood depleted by industrial fishing and other pollution, the stakes of this “experiment” could ultimately be high. Stephenie Charleson, a member of the local Hesquiaht First Nation Council who also works on environmental restoration at the Central Westcoast Forest Society, worries how that could ultimately affect her community’s ability to preserve cultural ceremonies that rely on harvesting seafood.
“That is a huge connection and knowledge that our elders share with children,” she says.
Rising public concern
A debris spill on Nov. 3, 2016, near the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, put a spotlight on Canada’s policy gaps related to marine debris. Some 35 empty shipping containers tumbled off the Hanjin Seattle, a Korean cargo ship, near the southern end of Vancouver Island. Metal chunks and yellow styrofoam from the broken shipping containers began washing up on the western coast of the island.
Within days, Surfrider Pacific Rim organized volunteers to clean up three accessible beaches in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, while Parks Canada hauled away shipping container chunks that washed up. But cleanup of remote areas didn’t begin until the following May. Meanwhile, the ebb and flow of the tide broke down the styrofoam and spread it further along the coast
Winter weather makes access to remote beaches difficult, but Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne told The Discourse that confusion about which government agency was responsible for responding contributed to the delay.
“It was frustrating,” says Michelle Hall, chair of Surfrider Pacific Rim, which worked with Parks Canada to coordinate volunteers and logistics for remote cleanups. The effort “took twice as long [than if they had started earlier] because foam had broken down into smaller pieces and spread much wider.”
The events alarmed Gord Johns, an NDP MP from Vancouver Island, who said the spill highlighted “a near-complete legislative and regulatory void for coastal debris cleanups.” On the anniversary of the spill in November 2017, Johns put forward a parliamentary motion calling for “a national strategy to combat plastic pollution in and around aquatic environments.” The motion focused on regulations to prevent plastic from getting into the environment, as well as “permanent, dedicated, and annual funding” for cleaning it up.
Although the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change is working on a national policy, the government provided The Discourse with little information on what it would contain. The government needs to conduct more consultations with experts and the public “before we jump to conclusions,” says Jonathan Wilkinson, parliamentary secretary to the minister of environment and climate change. The office of the minister of fisheries and oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard declined a request for an interview.
In towns and cities across the country, citizens and local government aren’t waiting for federal politicians to act. Apart from beach cleanups, rising public concern has led a number of Canadian communities and businesses to ban or cut back on single-use plastics like shopping bags, straws and utensils, that could ultimately end up in Canada’s waterways or surrounding oceans. Some have been at it for years. In Halifax, volunteers have been cleaning up the beach on nearby Mcnabs Island since 1990. In Ucluelet, Zoe Jordan cut many single-use plastics out of her business and started giving customers rewards for bringing their own containers to her bakery and cafe almost five years ago.
Still, the problem grows faster than the response. Misty Lawson, who has been a whale watching guide for 16 years, sees this on her tours.
“I used to pick up everything I saw because it was manageable,” she says. “If I did it now, I would spend the entire tour picking up garbage.”
I’d like to hear your thoughts after you’ve read my stories on the plastic washing up on Canada’s shores. Do you think you’ll change how you use plastic? What is the government’s responsibility? How else can Canadians solve this problem? Are there follow-up questions you’d like me to explore or solutions I should cover?
I’ll also use what comes up in this discussion to inform follow-up stories. Post your contributions here.