waves of change

How a 30-year-old grocery bag was beachcomber's 'wow moment' on plastics

Karen Jenner knows her new-found hobby isn't for everyone. The Nova Scotia woman spends hours each week combing beaches near her farm for trash that the Bay of Fundy's powerful tides wash ashore.

Karen Jenner of Lakeville, N.S., recently found a plastic grocery bag she believes is from the 1970s

Karen Jenner started the Facebook group, Nova Scotia Beach Garbage Awareness, this spring. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Waves of Change is a CBC series exploring the single-use plastic we're discarding, and why we need to clean up our act. You can be part of the community discussion by joining our Facebook group.

Karen Jenner knows her new-found hobby isn't for everyone. The Nova Scotia woman spends hours each week combing beaches near her farm for trash the Bay of Fundy's powerful tides wash ashore.

Each trip is becoming depressingly familiar.

She finds gnarled fishing rope woven around branches, chunks of Styrofoam, scraps of colourful balloons and hundreds of tiny lobster bands.

Then there are the odder discoveries, like the seat from a children's swing and a balloon with the name of a New York senator on it.

"I sent him a note saying it would be nice if they maybe didn't use balloons anymore and I didn't ever get a reply," said Jenner.

"So I don't think they took too kindly to it, but who cares?" 

Jenner visits the beaches near her Lakeville home multiple times a week to pick up garbage that's washed ashore. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Recently, Jenner discovered a Dominion grocery bag she believes is from the 1970s. It was still remarkably intact.

She said stumbling on that bag was "a wow moment" that reaffirmed why it's so important to find alternatives to plastic. 

"I'm not OK with the fact that plastic is here forever," she said.

"It's far more than I'll be able to clean up, and maybe I'm there for two hours and I look around and nobody would even know that I'd been there collecting things."

Jenner, who runs a coffee roasting company with her husband in Lakeville, didn't set out to become an environmentalist.

Her cleanup mission started because she loves taking her dogs on long walks along the beach. This spring, she decided to bring a bag with her so she could take some of the trash home.

Nine months later, the back of her barn has been turned into a makeshift recycling plant with bins and bags full of things people toss away.

All of it is carefully sorted and recycled, if it can be, and thrown in the garbage if it can't.

Some of the plastic Jenner can recycle, but items that are dirty have to be thrown in the trash. (Emma Smith/CBC)
Styrofoam is a major culprit when it comes to beach debris, says Jenner. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Jenner posts photos of some of her finds on Facebook.

"Typically when you go to a beach in the summer, you don't see very much," she said. "I think it's important for people to see what's coming ashore and what's going in the garbage."

She doesn't know where the trash travels from, or how it ended up in the ocean, but she has some hunches. Many of the lobster tags, for example, are marked with Maine, Massachusetts or New Hampshire.

Once she comes back from the beach, Jenner sorts all the garbage and recycles what she can. She estimates she's collected more than 800 plastic straws and nearly 3,000 pounds of fishing rope. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Some of the garbage has even found a new life around her barn. Jenner uses scraps of plastic to line her horse stalls and a discarded ladder has become a railing leading up to her attic.

Still, Jenner isn't optimistic about the impact she's having. Every time she returns to the beach, there's just as much garbage as before.

"I know that it all helps but the problem is so immense that what I'm doing, it's just a scratch on the surface," she said.

Jenner has a couple buckets full of elastic bands that are meant to go around lobster claws. (Emma Smith/CBC)
Some of the discarded debris has been repurposed, like this ladder that's become a railing to the attic. (Emma Smith/CBC)

During one of her cleanups at Black Rock Beach last week, a bald eagle swooped low, looking for fish among the tangles of plastic and garbage.

Jenner said that's why she keeps coming back.

"I know that none of these items will ever be a problem for any marine life or birds on the shore," she said, gesturing to the piles of trash in her barn.

"None of this will be eaten, none of this will become microplastics that are in the sand … so I do feel good about that."

About the Author

Emma Smith

Reporter

Emma Smith is a journalist from B.C. who has covered rural issues and Indigenous communities. Before joining CBC Nova Scotia in 2017, she worked as the editor of a community newspaper. Have a story idea to send her way? Email emma.smith@cbc.ca

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