Scientists discover microplastics in Vancouver ocean water samples

A group of scientists have launched a challenge to combat plastic pollution in local waters by asking people to reduce single-use items like plastic cups and shopping bags — and be more mindful of everyday plastic use.

#BePlasticWise program challenges people to reduce waste over a year

Rayon and polyester fibres from clothing, curtains and carpets and more were gathered by scientists in Vancouver waters. (NOAA/Associated Press)

A group of scientists have launched a challenge to combat plastic pollution in local waters by asking people to reduce single-use items like plastic cups and shopping bags — and be more mindful of everyday plastic use.

The scientists, with the Ocean Wise program, gathered water samples from the waters just outside Canada Place 10 days ago and found 1,258 tiny particles of plastic in one cubic metre of seawater.

Ocean Wise is an ocean conservation organization headquartered at the Vancouver Aquarium.

90 per cent plastic fibres

"Ninety per cent of the particles we examined were fibres," said Dr. Peter Ross, vice-president of research at Ocean Wise.

"The fibres consisted of polyester, rayon, modified cellulose, polyethylene and polypropylene. These are the ingredients of textiles, clothing, curtains, carpets," Ross said.

Any synthetic particle smaller than five millimetres is considered a microplastic, Ross said.

He said the presence of microplastics in the ocean confuse plankton and fish into thinking they are food items, leading to starvation, weakness and ultimately death for these creatures.

Government, industry and the public are being asked to sign up for a year-long initiative called #BePlasticWise — to get monthly challenges and tips on how to reduce the use of single-use plastics.

"Plastic contamination is found from pole to pole, so the high levels of microplastics we're finding in an ocean city as green as Vancouver raise the question: What does this mean for other parts of the world that are not as pristine?" said Ocean Wise president and CEO John Nightingale.

Dr. Peter Ross gathered water samples outside Canada Place on March 4. (Ocean Wise)

The #BePlasticWise initiatvie  was launched during the GLOBE Forum, a bi-annual gathering where business and government leaders from over 50 countries meet to discuss ways to advance sustainability.

On its website, Ocean Wise says plastic waste is collecting "in the ocean at a rate of one dump truck full every minute."

"Some have estimated that by 2040 or 2050, there will be more pounds of plastic in the ocean than there are fish," said Nightingale.

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and provincial counterpart George Heyman signed the pledge at a news conference Wednesday morning.

Others signatories included author Douglas Coupland, Ratana Stephen, the co-founder of Nature's Path Foods, and Ken Flores, general manager of the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel.