Opinion: Leaving garbage on the beach wreaks havoc on our oceans

May 22 2019, 11:36 pm

Written for Daily Hive by marine biologist Dr. Elaine Leung, founder of the non-profit Sea Smart, and Marin Davidson, Events Director of the Vancouver chapter of Surfrider, which is dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of oceans, waves and beaches through a powerful activist network.

It’s almost the time of year when Vancouver’s beaches become the city’s star attraction for both locals and tourists alike, drawing crowds to watch the sun set over ferry-lined shores and sprawling mountain tops.

As one of our city’s many beautiful natural attractions, our beaches are both a communal treasure and source of pride – but if we want them to stay that way, it will take active stewardship on behalf of all of us.

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Every year, our beaches accumulate tonnes of garbage from consumer use, contributing to the near eight billion kilograms of plastic garbage that enters our oceans each year and wreaks havoc on marine ecosystems.

Of this garbage, the vast majority is accumulated from consumer goods like single-use plastics, but the worst offender of all is cigarettes, which made up nearly half of all the litter found across Vancouver’s beaches last year – despite smoking being banned from parks and beaches.

Last year alone, Sea Smart and Surfrider Vancouver collected a whopping 27,508 cigarette butts from beaches – that’s one cigarette butt for every five people that live downtown, or 75 new cigarettes for every day of the year!

The problem with these carcinogenic leftovers isn’t just that they’re unappealing to look at: the filters of these butts, which are made of a plastic called cellulose acetate, aren’t biodegradable.

garbage english bay

Overflowing garbage can at Vancouver’s English Bay Beach / Shutterstock

The result? Once a cigarette butt makes it into our oceans, it lingers, leaching contaminants into the water that are toxic to wildlife. One study, for example, found that a single smoked cigarette butt dispersed in a litre of water was enough to kill marine and freshwater fish.

To prevent cigarette butts from having these consequences on our native marine wildlife, Sea Smart and Surfrider – two non-profits passionate about protecting our oceans and shorelines – host over a dozen beach cleanups across Vancouver every year.

While Sea Smart’s focus is on engaging and educating youth early on about the importance of our oceans’ health, Surfrider Vancouver hosts its own cleanups geared towards the general public. Last year, at its cleanup of Wreck Beach alone, it collected over 2,700 cigarette butts.

But the commitment to our shorelines doesn’t stop with citizens – it’s a shared responsibility with local companies and organizations.

In Vancouver, there has been some reassuring leadership on this front. As part of our local port’s vision to become the world’s most sustainable port, for example, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, partners with Ocean Wise to both monitor pollution in BC’s coastal waters and educate the public on how they can do their part to minimize ocean pollution through the #BePlasticWise pledge.

The importance of increasing education and awareness of the issues facing our oceans and shores is not only key to prevent widespread environmental problems for marine life, but to protect one of our city’s greatest assets and attractions: our shorelines.

As summer approaches, there are many ways that you can get involved – whether that’s participating in one of Sea Smart’s corporate beach cleanups, Surfrider’s upcoming cleanups or enrolling your children to participate in one of Sea Smart’s outdoor summer camps or after school programs.

But the single easiest way that you can help protect our oceans and shorelines this summer is simply to be mindful of your footprint on the beach when you visit.

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