Photo Credit: Jacqueline Windh / Canadian Geographic

Who Knew You Needed Helicopters to Pick Up Trash?

Major effort needed to clean up trash from remote areas

More than 7 million tonnes of plastic gets dumped in oceans every year

For the second summer in a row, a coalition of marine tourism companies are collecting ocean plastic and cleaning up remote beaches on Vancouver Island and elsewhere on the coast. Sometimes using helicopters to airlift the debris away.

Last year when COVID-19 turned tourism upside down, Russ Markel, owner of Outer Shores Expeditions, pivoted and tapped into a provincial government program to fund ocean plastic clean up. It kept his staff working and boats operating. 

By the end of summer 2020, crews from Outer Shores Expeditions and workers from Maple Leaf Adventures, Bluewater Adventures, Mothership Adventures, and Ocean Adventures Charter Company collected more than 120 tonnes of ocean debris. A large amount of the plastic garbage came from the commercial fishing sector, and this year they’re on track to collect even more.

It’s part of a $7 million government program targeted at collecting debris along 1,200 kilometres of our rugged and remote coastline. 

But there’s a mountain to climb. An estimated seven million tonnes of plastic enter the world’s oceans every year.

#BCCoastalCleanup 2021
Cleanup workers with giant pieces of styrofoam on a beach near Tofino, BC. Photo Credit: Greg Rasmussen / CBC

Plastic never entirely disappears. Instead, it breaks down into progressively smaller pieces. Unfortunately, these so-called microplastics are too small for the human eye to see and end up being eaten by marine wildlife.

A recent study in the Pacific Ocean found microplastics in every one of hundreds of water samples collected over thousands of square kilometres. In addition, fish, squid and shrimp collected in the same study contained microplastics. In BC, scientists have found plastic in the flesh of oysters destined for the dinner plate.

Ben Boulton, who normally works in tourism, is part of this year’s beach clean-up crew. He’s been blown away by the amount and variety of plastic that gets washed ashore on BC beaches.

“This stuff gets smashed apart by logs. All the winter storm action will just grind this down into small pieces,” Boulton said in a story recently reported by CBC. “Then we’re left with one little piece like that. It can appear like food to some creatures. It ends up in a lot of birds.”

YouTube video
Impacts of debris explained – CREDIT: Jacqueline Windh / Canadian Geographic

Jeff Ignace, a member of the Hesquiaht First Nation, told CBC he has witnessed more and more plastic piling up on beaches during his lifetime. He has seen whales, birds, fish, and other wildlife entangled in the debris.

“They can’t fly, they can’t swim, they can’t eat,” he said in the CBC story. “They starve, and they die.”

No matter how remote the beach, crews have found large blue barrels, fishing floats, plastic buckets, water bottles and other household and industrial plastic waste.

Workers have been putting in 13-day clean-up shifts at remote sites from Estevan Point lighthouse north of Tofino to the North Coast near Prince Rupert. Some camp on the beaches, other crews sleep on pocket cruise boats or sailing vessels normally filled with guests paying thousands of dollars to tour the BC coast.

Russ Markel of Outer Coast Expeditions told VanIsle News that this onslaught of plastic also represents economic opportunities for up-cycling, recycling and re-using. For example, he says, crews are salvaging hundred plastic floats used in commercial fishing that are still in perfect condition. Swimsuit designers are using fabrics made from recycled fishing gear and plastic bottles. And the makers of Lego are looking into turning plastic bottles into bricks. This year, they’re hoping to recycle 75% of the plastic at a facility in Delta run by the Ocean Legacy Foundation.

BC’s environment minister George Heyman called the problem of ocean plastics “massive” but wouldn’t make any commitments to future funding.

Back on the beaches of Vancouver Island, Ben Boulton, Jeff Ignace, and other crew members do their best to put a small dent in this global pollution problem.