The Plastic Problem

Our beloved False Creek, which supports many types of water recreation year-round as well as over one thousand different species of wildlife, has become contaminated by our plastic waste. Each year, tens of thousands pieces of plastic litter are collected by community scientists which includes the Vancouver Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. And that’s not all—beyond what the eye can see are tiny pieces of plastics called microplastics that are <5 mm in size (as large as your pinky nail or as small as the width of a strand of hair).

In 2017, 25,000 microplastics were counted in False Creek in a single reading. An estimated 30 billion microplastics are released into Vancouver's waters each year by water treatment plants, polluting their surrounding watersheds.

Microplastics are found in surface water, sediment, and wildlife within and around Vancouver. Even our drinking water, despite water treatment, has been shown to contain plastic particles.

Plastic debris of all types, shapes, and sizes enter our waters from various sources (e.g., litter from land, debris from vessels, tire dust in road runoff, pellets from industry, microfibers from washing our clothing entering via wastewater treatment plants). Understanding these sources is a key part of the solution.

The Vancouver Plastic Cleanup is capturing and removing plastic litter from our Vancouver waters. In addition, we are also capturing data!

Our network of community scientists are measuring how much we collect by mass and also characterizing the litter by product type (e.g., straw, pre-production pellet, foam take-out container) and material (e.g., plastic, metal, paper). Combined, this data will allow us to understand the effectiveness of our network in removing plastic litter and allow us to make predictions about the sources of litter entering our waterways. For example, if we find a lot of plastic pellets in the bins, we may link this to the plastic industry upstream. If we see many plastic straws and food wrappers, we may attribute the material to the littering of single-use plastic items. This data will inform policy-makers about effective solutions to prevent litter, including both upstream and downstream.

To see a local example of research and data from last year, visit the U of T Trash Team's page from the Seabin project in the Toronto Harbour with PortsToronto.

The Impacts of Plastic on Water

There are many different types of plastic, and plastic litter comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. All this plastic can interact with the environment in different ways and have a range of potential impacts on aquatic ecosystems.

According to a study led by Ocean Wise and Metro Vancouver, an estimated 30 billion plastic particles are released into Vancouver’s waterways each year. One of the biggest problems with plastic is that instead of breaking down completely like organic materials, it instead breaks up into smaller pieces that make their way into the marine food chain.

There are 5 types of microplastics: fragments, fibres, foam, nurdles, and microbeads. In Vancouver, the most abundant type of microplastic are the fibres, which are plastic strands from clothing.

Synthetic microfiber pollutants including polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polyethylene, have been found entangled and absorbed into organic matter such as algae and other natural debris.

When plastic pollutants make their way into aquatic food webs, they can harm local wildlife. Blue mussels (Mytilus spp.) are a keystone species that help to engineer coastal environments in Vancouver and beyond. These filter feeding organisms are vulnerable to these pollutants, which they are ingesting every day. There is research being conducted by Ocean Wise’s Pollution Tracker monitoring program examining whether blue mussels could be bioindicators for aquatic microplastic contamination.

Photo Credit: Chesapeake Bay Program / Flickr

3 Strategies to Combat Plastic Pollution

Trash skimmers are a type of incredible, innovative technology that help remove plastics from our waters. Trash skimmers alone cannot remove all of the plastic that is accumulating in the oceans along Vancouver’s shoreline and making its way into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

To fully prevent plastic pollution from impacting marine species and the overall health of our waters, we support a three pronged approach as identified by the U of T Trash team:

  1. Plastic Waste Reduction
  2. Increase Waste Management
  3. Plastic Pollution Cleanup

First, we all need to do our part to reduce our consumption of plastic. Some ways that we can all help reduce the amount of plastic produced globally is to buy less, shop at our local zero waste stores and educate ourselves about better alternatives.

Second, a better waste management must be employed. Even when plastic products are disposed of properly into recycle bins, those plastics are not recycled the majority of the time. A huge amount of plastic products end up in our landfills and our waters.

With the Vancouver Plastic Cleanup, we will be disposing of the waste collected by the Seabins into 5 different waste streams to properly dispose of our plastic waste, contaminated organic waste, hazardous waste, recycling, and compostable waste.

Finally, Vancouver Plastic Cleanup fits into the third strategy: to clean up plastic pollution. These floating bins filter waste from our waters 24/7. The Seabins effectiveness is combined with wonderful efforts from diverse groups such as the Vancouver Surfrider Foundation and the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup who are leading shoreline cleanups across the Vancouver area. This is the last line of defence to prevent plastic and other pollutants from degrading our waters.

Photo Credit: Kevin Krejci / Flickr

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