Why We Cannot Clean Our Way Out of The Plastics Crisis

Text: Lilly Woodbury, Chapter Manager, Surfrider Pacific Rim

Photo by Nicole Holman, instagram @nicole.holmann

In the last decade, the art and practice of beach cleaning has inflated, matching the proliferation of this type of pollution and the awareness raised to address it. However, this practice is not new, people have been combing the shorelines for flotsam and jetsam for many decades, using found materials and combining them into new works of functionality and wonder. This is increasingly important as restoring shorelines from plastic pollution is essential for safeguarding both terrestrial and marine ecosystems who are at risk of being harmed by this mismanaged material, as well as the greater ecosystems at large. However, we now know cleanups will not resolve this crisis on their own, rather, they must inform a greater strategy to holistically address this systemic issue through data, images and insights gathered. On Surfrider Pacific Rim’s latest remote cleanup expedition, we sought out to do exactly this.

Like all of our cleanups, this adventure started the day before we left - packing my van with piles of equipment: enough for 8 people to live on a remote island, and enough for all of us to clean 10 more islands. After checking the gear lists so many times they stopped making sense, I set off to sunset surf at Rosie’s Bay in Tofino, a final wave before calling it in to wake up at 5:30 am. The sky’s pigments splashed each one of us out there, brilliantly and fiercely reflecting off the water, a visual verse reminding me why we do this work, why we must push forward even when the odds are heavy.

The next morning we departed for the Broken Group Islands (BGI), off the coast of foggy Vancouver Island in Barkley Sound. These islands are traditional Tseshaht First Nation Territory, who are part of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, which is made up of 14 First Nations on the central west coast of Vancouver Island. The first major cleanup on the BGI’s took place in 2015 and 2016 which was led by the District of Ucluelet, following Japan’s Tōhoku Tsunami. This tragic tsunami resulted in an estimated five million tonnes of debris washing from coastal communities into the Pacific Ocean. From here, the currents are responsible for carrying the rest of this story, as debris travelled across the ocean through the North Pacific Gyre. A lot of this debris washed up along the Pacific Northwest, from Alaska down the Oregan coast. Due to their unique position facing the outer ocean, the BGI’s also became a final destination for some of this migrating material, with countless rocky coves, sunken caves, and beaches bordered by jagged cliffs. Like an embrace with open arms, this coastline is in the perfect position for the conglomeration of plastic pollution.

Since it had been three years since this region was restored, we knew we would be able to collect an astonishing amount. We arrived on Keith Island, where the Tseshaht First Nations Beach Keepers reside and have their headquarters, who kindly agreed to share their space with us. So, once stepping ashore, we all scattered to different corners of the island where we would set up our camps to call home for the next foreseeable future, using tree limbs as closets and the odd stumps as a side tables. After setting our foundations, we launched into the expedition: 8 days of cleaning split up between 2 different groups.

Now, we call our cleanup program the “Love Your Beach Clean” program, but in places like the Broken Group, with very little beach and a whole lot more sharp metamorphic rock, we should have called it the “rocky jagged unforgiving coast” program, as we scaled the sharp topography and crawled through dense coastal vegetation. I remember creeping into a narrow and deep cave that was completely plugged with plastic, my inner hypochondriac scolding me, what if this cave closes in on you? You won’t be much use then, will you? However, if I start something, I have a hard time giving it up. So, I crawled farther and farther back, making friends with new cave dwelling species, and inhaling all kinds of matter that I hope to never know the name of. The deeper I went, the more plastic filled my periphery, and half an hour in I did my best to throw what I could out to the entrance of the cave, and then inched myself out. Coming out, my black outfit looked like it was painted in camo, barraged in tones of chartreuse, neon tangerine and stale dry earth.

The Broken Group Islands is a well known kayaker’s paradise, but when you take a closer inspection beyond the hypnotic crystalline waters and candy coloured crafts, you will find the epitome of BC’s plastic pollution crisis. This is exactly what we discovered, not surprisingly, during our 8-day expedition. During this cleanup, we removed 7716 lbs or 3.5 tonnes of plastic, which equated to 14 cars worth of debris in volume from 11 islands. We only cleaned 6 km of the coastline but retrieved a mountain of debris. To put this into perspective, the BC coastline is 25,725 km, which makes it ever more clear that we cannot clean our way out of this mess.

The most ubiquitous material retrieved was polystyrene, also known as plastic resin #6, also known as the biggest pain in the you know what (literally) to painstakingly remove from sand, soil, rocks, and driftwood. This material has the incredible ability to break down into endless amounts of miniscule pieces, a seeming dream for unsuspecting hungry fish and bird species. Out of all plastic resins, polystyrene has the lowest potential for ever biodegrading, and often contains toxic additives like benzene and styrene. The precise source of polystyrene can be difficult to accurately pinpoint, as its affinity towards disintegrating leaves in it nondescript masses, free from any label, marker, or unique shape. This is why we need to ban all packaging made from this material, and ensure all polystyrene that is used in industries operating on the ocean is encased within a durable cover. In addition to this malevolent material, we collected multiple super sacs full of rope and net, broken down hard plastics, 1358 plastic consumer bottles, 12 super sacs of broken hard plastic, 314 buoys and hundreds upon hundreds of pieces of equipment from the fishing and aquaculture industry.

Where is all of this debris coming from? Many people like to blame 10 rivers in Asia and Africa for 90% of the world’s ocean plastic pollution problem. There are two ways to address and demyth this problematic narrative. First, most of what we find on British Columbia is from British Columbia: from consumers and from the industrial, commercial and institutional sectors. Second, western multinational corporations heavily target their products to third world countries that do not have waste management infrastructure. So, ironically, it’s individuals in developing nations that are already suffering the greatest impacts of the climate and pollution crisis who are also getting blamed for the crisis. I’ll tell you how we fix this picture: putting pressure on our governments to implement policies that will eradicate plastic pollution and waste, which includes heavily regulating corporations and making them responsible for the products and packaging they produce. This also means urging our governments not to ship our waste to developing nations to deal with, we need to create the infrastructure and systems domestically to turn waste back into resources.

This is exactly what we’ve been doing, lobbying the government to ban unnecessary single-use plastics, to increase the bottle deposit rate, to expand extended producer responsibility to include the fishing and aquaculture industry, and to implement recycled content standards for all plastic products and packaging. It’s also important to note that this entire cleanup was carbon neutral, we invested in cleaning cooking stoves in Rwanda to offset the fuels needed to boat between the islands. When we work to tackle plastic pollution we are also tackling climate change, as 1 tonne of plastic generates 1.89 tonnes of greenhouse gases, and since we only recycle about 9% of plastics globally, we burn an abominable amount of GHG’s to replace lost material and to create unnecessary plastic products.

Now, what can everyone reading this do to address plastic pollution? First off, we can all work to eliminate unnecessary plastics from our lives, from single-use plastics to excess packaging. Now is the time to embrace the refill revolution for food, drinks, and other necessities! We can also get involved in clean ups, as well as lead our own! They can be at the beach, at a park, by a river, in your city - anywhere, the ocean is downstream from all environments. Or, dig into a more intense journey and organize a remote clean, Surfrider Pacific Rim has created a remote shoreline cleanup toolkit, which you can contact us to acquire and use. Additionally, to create systemic change, we need to contact our local, regional and federal political representatives and urge them to ban single-use plastics and regulate this material through multiple policy mechanisms mentioned previously.

Additionally, we can lead and/or join campaigns that are putting pressure on corporations who are responsible for the proliferation of plastic pollution. Surfrider also has extensive resources that you can use in launching your own plastics campaigns. Through our collective efforts, we need to move beyond a linear economy to a circular economy, which designs waste and pollution out of systems and keeps materials in use. The time has most certainly ended where it’s acceptable to do nothing if we’re living a privileged life, and ideally, we will all work to make shifts in our personal lives while also contributing to systematic change. We have this one last chance to turn it around, and we, the alive, are the only ones who can make that happen.

To gain access to the resources, email Lilly Woodbury at lwoodbury@canada.surfrider.org

To learn more, visit pacificrim.surfrider.org

IG: @surfrider_pacificrim

FB: https://www.facebook.com/surfriderpacificrim/

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