Clean-up crews tackle mammoth task of cleaning up plastic-flooded BC beaches


Up on the beach, near the treeline, this is where the world’s endless love affair with plastics unfolds in all its ugliness.

In what was once a pristine expanse of Vancouver Island sand, a large chunk of styrofoam had been crushed to pieces by storms on the west coast.

Ben Boulton bent down and picked up a piece of foam, which is technically known as Styrofoam plastic, widely used for insulation and wrapping and apparently used in this case for buoyancy under a large wooden dock .

As part of a crew hired to clean the beach, Boulton demonstrated how easily fluffy plastic breaks down by breaking it up with his fingers.

“This stuff is smashed by logs. All the action of the winter storm is just going to crush it into little pieces,” he said, holding a nodule the size of a piece of corn between his thumb and lump of corn. ‘index.

“Then we end up with a little piece like that. It can look like food to some creatures. It ends up in a lot of birds,” he said, explaining how dead seabirds often are. found with plastic in their innards.

Boulton is part of a project funded under a $ 7 million BC government coastal clean-up program. It’s the most ambitious attempt yet to tackle the problem – the goal is to collect debris along 1,200 kilometers of coastline.

Ben Boulton holds up a handful of crumbly polystyrene. (Greg Rasmussen / CBC)

The money came from a special BC COVID-19 relief fund that aimed to help those in the tourism industry hard hit by employing workers as well as ships. (Other funds have been set aside to remove abandoned boats, which also pose a danger to the environment.)

No matter how far the beach was, crews found a mix of large blue barrels, fishing floats, plastic buckets, water bottles, and other household and industrial goods – from the seaside. water to the trees lining the shore.

“Large pieces of foam”

One of the clean-up project leaders, Peter Clarkson, said this year’s effort is tackling some very remote places, where “disposing of the garbage is really a challenge.”

This is because there is usually no road access, so crews must be dropped off by helicopter. Even getting in by boat can be tricky, amid the rocks and great ocean swells of the west coast. As a result, workers spend up to 13 days at a time at remote sites, from the Estevan Point Lighthouse north of Tofino to the north coast near Prince Rupert.

Often times, they have to fend for themselves, cook their own meals and camp at night, then hunt plastic by day. Other crews have the luxury of eating and sleeping off the coast, on boats normally used by guests who pay thousands of dollars to tour the BC coast, but are now employed in removing trash.

The chunks of foam Boulton pointed out – which he deemed “quite fresh”, according to his seasoned eye – had probably only been on the beach for a few months. But already part of it had crumbled and had mixed with the topsoil.

WATCH | BC Beach Cleanup discovers all types of plastic imaginable:

Crews have encountered all types of plastics as they embark on a massive effort to clean up 1,200 km of British Columbia’s coastline. 0:40

“You can already see that with this degradation, it’s part of the soil,” Boulton said, digging into the dirt and revealing a mixture of green shore grass, dark soil, and white chunks of plastic moss.

“From the first appearance you look in this pristine habitat and see nothing, then you come back here and you see big chunks of moss that will just devastate the environment.”

Millions of tons of plastic entering the oceans

Each year, seven million tonnes of plastic enter the world’s oceans, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Chesterman Beach, south of Tofino, at dusk. (Greg Rasmussen / CBC)

Once the plastics start to break down, cleaning up becomes more difficult. That’s why the people who do the heavy lifting on the coast target the bigger chunks. Plastic never completely disappears, but it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Eventually, it becomes what’s called microplastic, too small for the human eye to see.

A recent study in the Pacific Ocean found microscopic pieces of plastic in each of the hundreds of water samples taken over thousands of square kilometers. All of the fish, squid and shrimp collected in the same study were also found to contain microplastics. In British Columbia, oysters for the plate have been found with microplastics in their flesh.

Most of these microplastics come from larger pieces that break down, but they are also washed into waterways by washing machines, which can release hundreds of thousands of particles every time a load of synthetic clothing is loaded. is washed, according to the journal Nature.

Many of the people working on the BC cleanup, including Boulton, are typically employed in the marine tourism industry, so they know firsthand the lure of the coastline and have long been troubled by the mounds of trash without ceaselessly growing that visitors see in the wilderness. trips.

But getting the plastic off the ribs means overcoming a series of daunting challenges.

On a beach about 100 kilometers north of Tofino, Vancouver Island’s favorite tourist destination, Jeff Ignace growled as he struggled against a tangled mass of plastic nets, ropes and other debris partially buried under logs washed up high on the beach.

Rope and other plastic debris routinely get tangled in logs on many beaches in British Columbia. (Greg Rasmussen / CBC)

“This one probably weighs 200 pounds,” he said. Digging with his hands, he revealed a used plastic shotgun cartridge, plastic bags, styrofoam and various pieces of hard plastic, which he called “shrapnel”.

But most of them are nets and ropes from the fishing industry.

“It would take a month just to clean that section, to clean up all the little things in there,” he said, pointing to the pile.

A member of the Hesquiaht First Nation, Ignace grew up on these beaches and has seen plastic build up over the course of his life. And it’s deadly, he said, after seeing whales, birds and fish on the beach tangled in plastic.

“They can’t fly, they can’t swim, they can’t eat,” he said. “They are starving and they are dying.”

A member of the Hesquiaht First Nation, Jeff Ignace grew up on these beaches and has seen plastic build up throughout his life. (Greg Rasmussen / CBC)

Unexpected sources

Evidence of the longevity of plastic can come in surprising forms, such as washed hockey clothing.

When he spotted something white in one of the piles collected by the team, project manager Peter Clarkson exclaimed, “Oh, that’s good! It was a plastic hockey shin guard, which he said was part of a load that fell from an ocean freighter decades ago.

“It’s from a container spill – it’s from 1994, off Cape Beale,” he said, confident in the provenance of the plastic.

Clarkson, who retired after a long career with Parks Canada, helps manage the cleanup. He spent many years fighting on the beach, troubled by the onslaught of plastic, but finding some relief in turning pieces of debris into sculptural art to send home a message about pollution.

Clarkson, who retired after a long career with Parks Canada, helps manage the cleanup. He spent many years as a beachcomber, troubled by the onslaught of plastic. (Greg Rasmussen / CBC)

All the debris collected on the beach had to be sorted, cleaned and then bagged. Boulton, Ignace and the rest of the crew worked long hours, struggling over slippery logs and sharp rocks to pile up debris in bags called “supersacks”..

Then helicopters burst in, lifting the bags and taking them to a barge. From there it was a trip to the port, where trucks are used to bring the bags to a recycling center on the mainland, where they are then sorted and processed.

On a recent visit, the new recycling center in Richmond, British Columbia, was in full swing. The tractor-trailers arrived and the crews dragged the big bags in piles. Forklifts roared, moving nets, ropes and barrels by the ton.

“A lot of these materials are contaminated… so we set up this center to manage these materials specifically so that we can create products from ocean plastic,” said Chloe Dubois, co-founder of the Ocean Legacy Foundation, a non-profit organisation. working on various aspects of ocean plastic pollution.

The whole process is very laborious, made more difficult because a large part of the material is degraded by its passage in the ocean. Some of it is processed at the recycling center and made into granules which can then be used to make new plastic products.

“It’s important that we start to really stimulate the recycling industry and the use of recycled content so that there is a market for these materials.”

The scale “is massive”

Dubois hopes that a growing public outcry over the widespread contamination problem will help industries do more to prevent it – and to clean up the existing mess.

“The effects of plastic pollution are really being felt globally, so it’s pushing companies to do something about the plastics they use and sell in their products,” she said.

BC’s clean-up program is expected to remove approximately 400 tonnes of plastic from beaches. It sounds impressive, but it’s only 0.00005 percent of the 7.2 million tonnes that enter the world’s oceans each year.

WATCH | Clean up the plastic debris that is suffocating the BC coastline:

Plastic and other garbage is choking parts of British Columbia’s 1,200 kilometer coastline, but there is a team of people determined to clean up the tons of debris. 8:34

Despite the continued flow of plastic waste ashore, it is unclear whether BC’s multi-million dollar cleanup will continue after this year.

“The magnitude of the problem is enormous,” said George Heyman, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy for British Columbia. “We need to do a lot more to tackle ocean debris and its devastating effects on marine life and food sources.”

But Heyman declined to comment on possible future funding.

Back on the beach, Jeff Ignace was clearly frustrated with the Sisyphus task he and others faced.

“Garbage cans are made for a reason.” He gestured towards the ocean. “It’s not supposed to be a trash can.”

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