PEI·Waves of Change

Beached plastic: P.E.I. watershed group calls on industry to make changes

A P.E.I. watershed group wants the aquaculture industry to do more to keep plastic off Island beaches.

One P.E.I. aquaculture business is making changes to try to reduce plastic waste

The Winter River-Tracadie Bay Watershed Association gets help from students including members of the Green Team at Stonepark Intermediate. (Submitted by Sarah Wheatley)

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.

Sarah Wheatley knew there was a plastic problem on the shores of Tracadie Bay, P.E.I., but it was only when her watershed group did a summer-long beach cleanup that she realized how big the issue really is.

"In the first year, we collected two tonnes of material then in the second year we got one tonne," said Wheatley, co-ordinator for the Winter River-Tracadie Bay Watershed Association.

"So at least a tonne of debris is accumulating every year."

This is one of the loads of waste collected by Wheatley and her group in 2017. She says 99 per cent of what they pick up is plastic. (Submitted by Sarah Wheatley)

There was also a common theme to what she and the crews of volunteers were picking up. 

"Most of the material that we pick up on our shoreline cleanups is aquaculture or fishing related," Wheatley said.

She said it's mostly foam buoys, along with "bits of rope, bits of net and then a small amount of food waste, chip bags, bottles, that type of thing. Ninety-nine per cent is plastic."

Besides foam, Wheatley is most troubled by the amount of plastic rope on the beach.

"We'll get big chunks of rope but mostly we find these small bits of rope with knots in them," Wheatley said. 

"They look like there was a knot in the rope or it got frayed off at the end and somebody just cut the very end piece off the rope and then just chucked it." 

Wheatley says her group finds small bits of rope with knots in them, that look like there was a knot in the rope or it got frayed and somebody cut the end piece off and threw it away. (Submitted by Sarah Wheatley)

The watershed group received federal funding for the cleanup project but that ends this year.

Wheatley is worried about what happens after that.

"Probably the people that are responsible for the issue have the most to lose by it," Wheatley said. "I've seen reports of research where microplastics were being found in shellfish."

Wheatley has raised her concerns with the P.E.I. Aquaculture Alliance and her group has even suggested some kind of eco levy on any future purchases of foam buoys, to discourage their use and help pay for the cleanup. (Submitted by Sarah Wheatley)

Foam buoy stockpiles

Wheatley has raised her concerns with the P.E.I. Aquaculture Alliance and her group has even suggested some kind of eco levy on any future purchases of foam buoys, to discourage their use and help pay for the cleanup.

"There are a few operators who are very helpful and they've helped with our shoreline cleanups and are trying to find solutions," Wheatley said.

"Some people have told me that mussel growers are only buying the hard plastic buoys now. But they have these massive stockpiles of old ... ones and no one seems to know what to do with them."

In the first year of the cleanup project, the Winter River-Tracadie Bay Watershed Association collected two tonnes of material, then in the second year they got one tonne. (Submitted by Sarah Wheatley)

The aquaculture alliance said it has an environmental code of practice, which encourages its members to purchase materials with a long lifespan or which are reusable or recyclable and to minimize the release of waste materials into the marine environment.

The alliance says gear is expensive and is mainly lost due to wear and tear and extreme weather.

It says it also organizes its own Island-wide shoreline cleanup week.

Making changes

At Atlantic Shellfish Products in Morell, P.E.I., president Jacob Dockendorff is trying to steer his oyster company away from plastic.

He said they've made a shift from foam buoys "that were originally used in aquaculture and we're using the hard plastic buoys now."

He added there's new technology to replace the foam buoys which can break apart. "They create a pretty big mess to clean up. So with the plastic buoys now, when they fail they stay where they are, they just fill up with water."

At Atlantic Shellfish Products in Morell, P.E.I., Jacob Dockendorff is trying to steer his oyster company away from plastic, bringing back wooden boxes as a packaging option. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

Dockendorff says there are also ways to reduce the amount of plastic rope that ends up washed up on the beach.

"Earlier on we may not have had the education to realize that cutting the knots off the ropes and letting them fall into the water was going to become such a big issue," Dockendorff said. 

"But now there's different procedures of how we tie out buoys to make it easier to untie the knots so that you don't need to use the knife as much."

At Atlantic Shellfish Products in Morell, P.E.I., they have made the shift from the foam buoys that were originally used in aquaculture and are using hard plastic buoys. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Dockendorff takes part in local watershed cleanups and cleans the shoreline around his company's oyster leases.

"What we typically see there is mostly plastic waste and a lot of broken [foam] from over the years, you can tell it's aged," said Dockendorff.

"It's disheartening. Each year you go out and you think you're going to find less and less and we do. But it's still there and it's going to be there for a number of years yet."

Atlantic Shellfish used to use cardboard boxes, with a wax lining that meant they weren't compostable in some locations. Dockendorff says the plastic, at least, can be recycled. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Back to the past

Atlantic Shellfish has started using wooden boxes for shipping oysters, reverting to the way they used to be sold, as well as recyclable plastic containers.

"We do realize that plastic is plastic and it's not the most environmentally friendly option," Dockendorff said.

"But when used correctly and recycled correctly, it's still your better option for packaging."

The company used to use cardboard boxes, with a wax lining that meant they weren't compostable in some locations.

Atlantic Shellfish has started using wooden boxes for shipping oysters, reverting to the way they used to be sold, as well as recyclable plastic containers.

"The wood's very popular, the customers seem to enjoy it, it's kind of a throwback," Dockendorff said.

"Originally the majority of oysters were packaged in wooden packaging, as time went on it evolved into waxed cardboard. Now it's trending towards more plastic and wood again."

Dockendorff hopes the aquaculture industry will continue to look for ways to be more sustainable.

A pilot project in the Bay of Fundy has seen an estimated three tonnes of rope deposited in recycling bins at southwestern New Brunswick wharves. (Huntsman Marine Science Centre / Fundy Discovery Aquarium/Facebook)

"If you know you can make some small change to make things, then it's a no-brainer for us at that point," Dockendorff said. 

"Sometimes it is more expensive but when you factor it all together with the environmental issues, it really makes very little difference. Ten cents here, ten cents there.Then I go home and I see my kids and I think what am I leaving behind?"

About the Author

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca

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