British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii islands, with their long, rugged coastlines, temperate rainforest and unique wildlife, attract people from around the world to an area often referred to as ‘the Galapagos of the North.’
But what most travellers don’t expect to see on their visit to Haida Gwaii is the amount of plastic waste that washes up on the islands’ supposedly immaculate shores.
Because of their geographical location in the Pacific Ocean, far from the B.C. mainland, the islands of Haida Gwaii have always been hit by a steady influx of marine debris.
But in recent years, the amount of plastic items drifting ashore has been growing, raising concern for local residents.
The beaches of Haida Gwaii that are accessible to the general public get the benefit of beachcombers cleaning up some of the debris. But some of the more remote locations, only accessible by boat or air, nearly never get cleaned up, leaving debris to pile up.
Taking a stroll down the remote, sandy East Beach, on the northeastern tip of Haida Gwaii, you can go for miles without seeing another human being.
But the signs of civilization can be seen everywhere.
Poking out of the sand and jammed between beach logs are plastic bottles, containers, marine buoys, fishing baskets and gear, pieces of Styrofoam, used tires, and even toothbrushes and rubber shoes.
PHOTO GALLERY: Marine debris on the East Beach in Naikoon Provincial Park, the north-eastern tip of Haida Gwaii.
But it’s what you don’t immediately see that shows the true extent of the problem.
Tiny pieces of broken-up plastic, sometimes only a few millimetres in diameter, are so numerous they often mix in with the sand — making it virtually impossible for even some of the more experienced beachcombers to see and pick up.
“Sometimes you cruise by in a boat and it looks like the beach is clean, but then you look under the logs and there are tiny pieces of plastic everywhere,” says Trent Moraes, a local resident whose company, Highlander Marine Services Ltd., helps clean up the debris.
Why are the people of Haida Gwaii sounding the alarm about plastic pollution?
Plastic is used in many aspects of our daily lives because of how cheap and durable it is.
A report released in January suggests plastic production has surged over the past 50 years, from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014.
The number is expected to double again over the next 20 years.
But, the report also suggests that if our plastic consumption habits stay the way they are, oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish by year 2050.
READ MORE: Plastic in ocean could outweigh fish by 2050
More than 260,000 tonnes of plastic are currently floating in the ocean, including some 5.25 trillion individual pieces, and at least eight million tonnes of plastic leak into the ocean every year.
Why is there a concern about small pieces of plastic accumulating on Haida Gwaii’s beaches?
The tiny pieces of plastic that Moraes and other island residents have been noticing in recent years are the result of plastic debris getting weathered and pulverized by the force of the ocean.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says plastic will degrade into small pieces until you can’t see it anymore, but it never really fully goes away.
Instead, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, a process that’s exacerbated by UV radiation, saltwater and the force of the surf.
That means every single piece of plastic ever created still exists today.
In fact, Greenpeace suggests a single one-litre plastic bottle could break down into enough small fragments to put one on every mile of beach in the entire world.
NOAA says plastic debris can accumulate pollutants such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) up to 100,000 to 1,000,000 times the levels found in seawater. While it’s still unclear whether these pollutants can seep from plastic debris into the organisms that happen to eat the debris, there is a serious concern that these contaminants may transfer through the food chain and all the way up to human consumption.
Researchers have found small pieces of plastic found in the stomachs of many marine organisms, from plankton to whales. When fish and other marine life ingest small pieces of plastic, it could cause irritation or do damage to their digestive system, leading to malnutrition or starvation.
UNESCO estimates plastic debris causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals.
In Haida Gwaii, the problem is further exacerbated by powerful storms pushing deteriorated plastic along with other debris all the way up into the tree line, where it becomes part of the forest ecosystem, buried in the greenery and covered by moss – a disturbing sight for locals and tourists alike.
PHOTO GALLERY: Marine debris collected in Englefield Bay on the west coast of Haida Gwaii
The trick is to remove plastic debris from local beaches before it gets churned by the sea and pushed into the tree line, where it starts disintegrating to the point where removal is virtually impossible.
The Haida Gwaii Tsunami Debris Committee
After the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011, it was expected that Haida Gwaii would be hit with an increased volume of marine debris.
So, in 2013, after the Japanese government offered Canada $1 million to help support the tsunami clean-up effort, community members joined forces to take things into their own hands and formed the Haida Gwaii Tsunami Debris Committee.
The committee received a chunk of the Japanese funding — about $139,000. That allowed the group to hire contractors from around Haida Gwaii to clean up nearly 40 kilometers of local beaches and remove some 630 cubic meters of debris.
Some of the debris is undoubtedly from Japan, but a substantial amount is what they just call “world garbage.”
“Most of the plastic is not from a source that we can control,” said marine ecologist Lynn Lee, a member of the Haida Gwaii Tsunami Debris Committee. “It comes from the Great Pacific garbage patch, industrial waste, fishing vessels.
“These things happen outside of the boundaries of Haida Gwaii, but they are affecting the region.”
Contractors have to use specialized trucks and boats to remove the debris from the remote beaches around Haida Gwaii — and they’re usually filled up to capacity.
“We can fill a boat within hours sometimes,” said Moraes.
The committee is also experimenting with using a helicopter to lift the debris out of very remote areas, but that would require substantially more money. The committee got an additional $115,000 from Japanese debris clean-up money this year. But this is the final round of funding, which officially runs out in March 2017.
The committee is also looking into the possibility of chartering a barge to remove a larger amount of the debris all at one time. While it may not be economically feasible at this point, the debris collected on a barge could be shipped to a recycling facility.
Currently, a great deal of the collected marine garbage ends up at a local landfill. A few items get recycled by local fishermen and a small portion goes into a smaller local recycling operation, but the majority of the debris, including deteriorated plastics, are left to rot in the ground.
Moraes and others are looking into bringing in technology that could potentially convert marine garbage into biofuel.
Impact on tourism
James Cowpar, the operator of local tour company called Haida Styles, said guides often take guests to areas heavily impacted by plastic pollution.
The reaction is nearly always the same — people are stunned by what they see and want to help.
He said educating visitors and talking about the bigger picture is part of their company’s mandate.
Part of their effort to help mitigate the situation involves not carrying plastic water bottles for their clients on their tour boats and using water containers with reusable cups instead.
So far, he said, the reaction from their guests has been nothing but positive.
“Global pollution is a huge problem,” said Cowpar. “People believe that national parks and protected areas are free of pollution and that’s simply not the case. It tends to be an indirect dumping ground.”
What can be done?
With the Japanese funding drying up, Moraes said he wants to see more support from all levels of Canadian government.
He said there should also be a feasibility study done on how to handle the amount of the debris coming in the future.
“There is so much work to be done. We have been going strong for the last few years, but we are still not even close to getting it all collected,” said Moraes. “We really need to figure something out for the long-term: find some dedicated money for this. The province and the federal government really should step up and address this huge issue.”
The B.C. Ministry of Environment told Global News there are no immediate plans to fund the non-tsunami debris clean-up. The ministry said further resources will be allocated as necessary if a major increase in tsunami debris is experienced.
But Lucy Stefanyk, the Haida Gwaii supervisor with BC Parks and a member of the committee, said marine debris, including plastics, will always be something that they will continue to grapple with.
“The notion of ‘pristine’ and ‘untouched’ across the entire coastline, I don’t think that exists anymore,” she said. “The civilization has impacted the most remote corners of our beaches. We can’t prevent what’s coming on our shores. But the hope is that, as global communities are more mindful about what’s happening in the ocean, there will be more funding and attention paid to the ocean’s health overall. The trickle of global garbage will always be slowly coming in for our shores, but I think we can have an impact on how much we see in the future.”
Lee said raising awareness about marine garbage in Haida Gwaii is also an opportunity to show the world how its actions somewhere far away are having an impact on a place like the islands.
“There is no easy solution aside from minimizing plastic production and use,” Lee said.
How much plastic garbage do Canadians produce?
Canada produces about two per cent of the total world volume of plastic products. Canadian and worldwide demand for plastic products are expected to continue growing faster than the economy as a whole.
Currently, Canadians take home an estimated 55 million plastic bags per week, for a total of 2.86 billion bags per year.
Canadians also consume more than two billion litres of bottled water a year, and globally, we consume about 190 billion litres a year.
“Reduce what you are consuming, reduce the overusing,” said Lee, adding plastic pollution is just a symptom of a larger problem.
“The less we feel like we have to use in order to live our lives, the better the world will be,” she said. “As the number of people on the planet is increasing, we have no choice but to think more carefully on a global scale about the choices that we make as individuals. If we choose not to buy those things that are covered in plastic and those disposable items, then we are all better off.”