By William Bird

Pollution is undoubtedly one of the most pressing issues facing oceans in 2021, especially as it multiplies other issues such as overfishing and the many effects of climate change. What that means is that the oceans are one of our most significant natural carbon sinks, and any changes to their natural processes will have a cascading effect on almost everything else in the water.

Without making this as complicated as it is, it processes and stores greenhouse gasses for us. About 30 to 50 percent of what we produce. This is largely thanks to the plankton populations that turn carbon dioxide into sugars, which they use to live. Plastic pollution, directly and indirectly, impacts these little guys. 

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A mid-sized piece of styrofoam collected during a waste characterization session. 

Microplastics, which I'll talk a bit more about father on, get eaten by plankton, reducing their ability to absorb CO2. One of the most found types of plastic in the ocean releases greenhouse gases as it breaks down due to several factors such as heat and exposure to the sun. These factors lead to the planet getting progressively hotter, increasing the rate at which the plastics break down. This creates hotter and more acidic environments for plankton, degrading their ability to help even further. It is a vicious cycle that we are only making worse with Canada's plastic dependency.

Canada creates millions of tonnes of plastics to satisfy the needs of Canadians. Of that, only nine percent of our plastics end up getting recycled domestically. If you were expecting better global statistics, you would be disappointed to hear that we are somehow still on par with the all-time global average. These numbers bolster the growing argument for reforms on how we approach the problem of plastic pollution domestically and on a worldwide scale. 

The Harm Plastics Pose to Ocean Life

One of the biggest problems is that plastic has become deeply entrenched in our daily lives. Everyday items such as vehicles, clothing, tea bags, toys, and so much more all feature plastic components. Clothing is a huge concern as it releases microplastics every time an item gets washed—these microplastics end up in our waterways, where they flow to the ocean. 

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Small styrofoam balls being counted during a waste characterization session. 

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic that are less than five millimetres in length, but their consequences for ecosystems are extremely disproportionate to their size. They damage marine organisms in several physical and chemical ways. Although we are not likely to consume harmful amounts when eating these organisms, the effects can be highly toxic and possibly deadly to aquatic animals. Microplastics are estimated to outnumber the gross number of zooplankton (the microscopic animals that often take primary consumers' place within their food chains) in the ocean. The effects of microplastics are being seen throughout the marine ecosystem... 

COVID-19 and Single-Use Plastic Pollution

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A plastic spoon being pulled from other miscellaneous litter during a waste characterization session. 

Our response to COVID-19 has only exasperated the problem of plastic pollution. Since the pandemic began, the use of single-use plastics such as food delivery packaging and PPE have increased by more than 250 percent. This response is needless since health officials state that using reusable products is still safe. Our single-use PPE is trickling to the ocean, with Sea Turtles mistaking them for jellyfish, their preferred food source. This is not where the harm of PPE litter stops as it also poses a severe risk of entanglement for fish, marine animals, and seabirds. Beyond the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, single-use plastics are also becoming more prevalent due to their relatively low price. The average consumer may purchase a cheap plastic product unknowing of environmental cost.  

How Fraser Riverkeeper is Fighting Plastic Pollution

On a positive note, many concerned people and organizations are responding to this issue. You can even find a local instance of such an initiative here in Vancouver. Granville Island, to the Southwest of Yaletown, is committed to becoming a zero-waste zone. This commitment means enhancing their recycling program, focusing on energy-efficient public appliances, working to eliminate plastic shopping bag usage, and much more. 

They have also partnered with Fraser Riverkeeper to introduce seabins to the island as part of our Vancouver Plastic Cleanup (VPC) initiative. The VPC initiative aims to mitigate local sources of pollution by collecting floating debris, microfibers, and both micro and macro plastics twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. These trash skimmers are emptied every day with the capacity to remove 3.9 kgs of floating debris per day which translates to about 1.4 tons every year!

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The Maritime Market Marina seabin. (Granville Island)
The Vancouver Plastic Cleanup is a project made possible by the generous financial support provided by the Peter Wall Charitable Foundation. The coalition is spearheaded by Swim Drink Fish and builds on the legacy of the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup, which was initiated by Pollution Probe and the binational Council of the Great Lakes Region
As we catalogue which kinds of waste our trash skimmers capture in each area, we hope to improve upon our current plastic cleanup system. By knowing which types of waste we are removing from the ecosystem, we can further optimize our trash skimmer network and inform government bodies about how we believe pollution is making its way into our bins. 

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Imogene (our water monitoring coordinator) processing the waste coming from the seabins.

The waste characterization aspect of the project is where we would love to see our community come together. There are now two dates this summer (the 31st of July and the 14th of August); we hope to have volunteers join us for a waste characterization event. Although it will undoubtedly be messy, I promise that all volunteers will be leaving with a deeper understanding of how waste products impact our waterways while working towards a swimmable, drinkable, and fishable future. 

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Filtering out the organic matter during a waste characterization session. 

With the amount of plastic winding up in the ocean reaching almost 9 million tons per year, we know that trash skimming technology is not a long-term solution for global plastic pollution. Still, as we work towards a pollution-less future for our watersheds, trash skimmers will directly help reduce the damage we cause to the environment until we get there, improving public knowledge of the issue along the way. 

Government Action Against Plastic Pollution

In May, the Canadian government listed "plastic manufactured items" in Schedule 1 under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). This decision legally classifies them as toxic substances. Although this in itself does not make producing or distributing plastics illegal or impose restrictions on them, it does give the government the legal right to regulate plastic products in many ways. Now, preventing plastics from being disposed of in harmful ways and banning single-use products are well within the government's powers.

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Small pieces of styrofoam mixed in with organic debris.

The day when we don't need to organize cleanup initiatives is no longer just a dream, but we'd love to see you at our next one until it's reality.

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