Last Sunday volunteers scoured the beaches of McNab’s Island in Halifax Harbour and filled 500 garbages bags with random bits of garbage from the shoreline. The Friends of McNabs Island Society has been organizing this cleanup since 1991, and president Cathy McCarthy estimates they have collected nearly 13,000 bags of garbage over the years from the shores of this little-visited provincial park in the midst of our harbour. The bulk of the items being collected are plastics.
Two years ago, when veterinarians performed a necropsy on a pygmy sperm whale that had washed up on the shore of McNab’s Island, they found the two-metre long juvenile whale had a belly full of plastic.
“We actually found quite a few plastic bags and plastic strapping — the kind you’d find on boxes of paper or on fish bait boxes. The animal had actually ingested it and got basically lodged just before its stomach, which meant it couldn’t feed after that,” said Tonya Wimmer, the coordinator of Marine Animal Response Society to CBC news in March of 2015.
We are learning more every day about the extent to which the oceans are full of plastic. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has estimated that in 2014, there was a pound of plastic in the ocean for every five pounds of fish. That’s a shocking enough ratio, especially considering how light plastic is. (It takes about 25 half-litre water bottles or 67 plastic bags to add up to roughly a pound of plastic.)
But there’s even worse news. On our current trajectory, the foundation predicts that by 2050 the amount of plastic in the ocean will match the amount of fish, by weight.
Where is it all coming from?
The Blue Urbanism project is aiming to help track exactly that.
A group students in Dalhousie’s Masters of Marine Management program worked with the Clean Foundation to study the source of plastic pollution in the Halifax Harbour. The group set up at five different sites around the harbour and basin, and essentially inventoried the garbage they collected from the high water mark down to the shore line.
Master’s students Mikaila Bickford and Laura Steeves were surprised “by the sheer amount” of plastic pollution they found. “I think as someone from Dartmouth, growing up there, there’s just this perception that the harbour has become so much cleaner,” said Steeves. “and I think this made me realize that… I think it was a little surprising.”
The study looked at macro plastic pollution. So, not the micro plastic pollution you may have heard about recently (which should be pretty high on your concern-o-meter, especially if you like to eat fish or shellfish, which is more and more often full of it) but larger stuff like plastic cups, bottles and bags. Macro plastic pollution is actually one of the biggest sources of micro plastic pollution as it breaks down, meaning we may end up eating our own trash. But before it gets micro-sized, macro plastics can kill whales, sea turtles, and other ocean life, through entanglements or attempted digestion.
Leatherback sea turtles often fall victim to plastic bags, says Steeves. “They come up here to feed in the summer off our coasts, and they only eat jellyfish, but they have horrible eyesight. These huge, beautiful, endangered turtles just end up eating plastic bags because they think they’re jellyfish.”
After meticulously counting everything they picked up (including disintegrating plastic bags, copious Tim’s cups, and a Salty’s menu) the team determined 79 per cent of what they found were from common land-based items, 12 per cent from fishing gear, four per cent hygeine products (mostly plastic tampon applicators), and the remaining five per cent miscellaneous items from households and industries.
It’s clear that containers are a huge problem “There’s just so many food-related plastics,” says Steeves.
The team’s report includes a call to action mostly aimed at the average person: stop littering, use re-usable containers, stop buying so much stuff contained in single-use plastic. But Steeves and Bickford see some potential for systemic changes too.
“The banning of plastic bags is a really easy one, one that the public has received really well,” says Steeves. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable, it’s something that other cities are doing.”
And we also need to contain our garbage better. The team took note of unseparated, overflowing, windswept garbage cans at Black Point Beach (also a terrible place for cigarette butts.) Over on McNabs Island, Cathy MacArthy finds not only copious amounts of washed up city litter, but also household garbage on shore, every year.
“The public can make a difference,” says Bickford, noting that there’s a sort of ‘broken windows’ syndrome at work. “That’s so true of Halifax Harbour,” says Steeves. “There’s this perception that the harbour is toxic and therefore it’s already gross and icky and so what’s the point?”
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicts that a third of the plastics we produce each year “leak” out of the system, meaning they are neither recycled, burned, or landfilled. Instead, they end up in our natural systems like oceans, lakes, rivers, and forests.
The next time you see the ubiquitous chip bag blowing down the street, try not to just think about what an eyesore it is. Also remember that it is headed for the harbour, and the ocean, and has the potential to do plenty of harm after it gets there.
“The epidemic of ocean plastic pollution and its effects on marine animals and human health” is the subject of a new documentary being screened this week as part of Oceans Week events. A Plastic Ocean will screen on Friday June 9th, 6:30pm at the Ondatjee Auditorium at Dal.