'Alarming' amount of plastic waste found at St. Catharines beach

Brock University students are sifting through sand for plastic waste to show that the issue of waste plastics isn't just one in distant oceans.

One sample revealed 665 pieces of plastic in a 1-metre plot of sand

Brock University students found "alarming" amounts of plastic at St. Catharines' Sunset Beach — and that's just the plastic you can see. (Brock University)

A Brock University professor says the amount of plastic waste found by student researchers on a St. Catharines beach is "alarming." 

Students visited Sunset Beach in St. Catharines in October 2019 as part of a geography and tourism studies class to measure the amount of plastic waste.

They sifted through grains of sand along the shoreline of Lake Ontario as if panning for gold ; but instead, they combed the top 5 cm and found bottle caps, lollipop sticks, and a whole lot of Styrofoam.

In one instance, one square metre of the beach yielded a whopping 665 pieces of plastic material. 

The course's professor Michael Pisaric said the results were "eye-opening," but unfortunately not surprising given the research available about plastics in the environment, let alone bodies of water. 

This research, he says, supports discourse that the issue is close to home. 

"A lot of what people have heard about with regards to plastics in the environment has been around the Pacific Ocean garbage patch...and so that's a long ways from where we live here in southern Ontario," he said.

"Now there's a growing amount of evidence and studies that have been done to show that the amount of plastics in the Great Lakes is a fairly significant problem as well." 

Emily Bowyer, Pravin Rajayagam and Dakota Schnierle, students in a fourth-year Brock University course, use a sand shaker to search for plastic waste on Sunset Beach. (Brock University)

What did surprise him, Pisaric said, was the sheer amount of "nurdles" — tiny plastic pellets a couple of millimetres in diameter, which smaller organisms can mistake for food — and the amount of everyday objects, like pen caps, found in the environment. 

He added that having his students collect data first-hand on a "real-world problem" was a huge takeaway. 

Fourth-year geography student Michelle Pearce — who participated in the field collection — said that when people think of where their waste ends up, they normally envision landfills full of garbage bags — not beaches. 

She said it shocked her to think about what she was finding, and how the situation could be much worse depending on where she was looking. 

"You have to think 'this is just one metre squared of the whole entire beach that we're looking at" she said.

"And that was just our group — there were five other groups going as well. So it was mind-blowing to extrapolate up...I can't even imagine what's two feet to my left or two feet to my right." 

She said her class came across hundreds of bits of material on the beach, especially up shore. One reason for this, she said, is that the wind could be sweeping small pieces up the beach. 

And some material found didn't immediately appear to be plastic. Pearce explained that her group kept finding pieces with same consistency of gum, which turned out to be plastic insulation of boats.

The waste Pearce and her class collected is only the type they can see with the naked eye. Incredibly small microplastics end up in waterways from all sorts of everyday actions, she said, like washing clothes. 

This is the first time Pisaric and his class have done this kind of work.

He plans to continue with next year's group of students, potentially comparing the differences between amounts that end up on the shores of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie and exploring how much there is.

The goal, he said, is awareness. 

"The biggest message is thinking about our use of plastics and how much plastic do we really need in our daily lives, and are there alternatives to that that we could use that would then eliminate and reduce the amount that gets into the environment."