Cleanup crews tackle gargantuan task of cleaning B.C. beaches inundated with plastic

An ambitious project funded by the B.C. government hopes to collect ocean plastic along 1,200 kilometres of coastline. 

B.C. government hoping to clear plastic waste from 1,200 km of coastline

From left to right, cleanup workers Craig Gentry, Emelie Stenberg, Owen Gardiner and Ben Boulton stand in front of giant pieces of styrofoam on a beach near Tofino, B.C. (Greg Rasmussen/CBC)

Up the beach, near the treeline, is where the world's unending love affair with plastics revealed itself in all its ugliness.

In what was once a stretch of pristine Vancouver Island sand, a large piece of styrofoam had been pummelled into pieces by West Coast storms.

Ben Boulton reached down and picked up a chunk of the foam, which is technically known as polystyrene plastic, widely used for insulation and packaging and apparently employed in this case for buoyancy beneath a large wooden dock. 

Part of a crew hired to clean up the beach, Boulton demonstrated how easily the fluffy plastic degrades by crumbling it with his fingers.

"This stuff gets smashed apart by logs. All the winter storm action will just grind this down into small pieces," he said, holding a nodule the size of a piece of corn between thumb and finger.

"Then we're left with one little piece like that. It can appear like food to some creatures. It ends up in a lot of birds," he said, explaining how dead seabirds are often found with plastic inside their guts.

Boulton is part of a project funded under a $7 million B.C. government coastal cleanup program. It's the most ambitious attempt yet to tackle the problem — the goal is to collect debris along 1,200 kilometres of coastline. 

Ben Boulton brandishes a handful of crumbly styrofoam. (Greg Rasmussen/CBC)

The money came from a special B.C. COVID-19 relief fund that aimed to help those in the hard-hit tourism sector by employing workers as well as vessels. (Other money was set aside to remove derelict boats, which also pose an environmental hazard.)

No matter how remote the beach, the crews found a mix of large blue barrels, fishing floats, plastic buckets, water bottles and other household and industrial goods — from the edge of the water right up into the trees lining the shore.

'Big chunks of foam'

One of the cleanup project's managers, Peter Clarkson, said this year's effort is tackling some very remote locations, where "getting the garbage off is really a challenge." 

That's because there is usually no road access, so crews have to be dropped in by helicopter. Even getting in by boat can be difficult, amid rocks and large West Coast ocean swells. As a result, the workers spend up to 13 days at a time at remote sites, from the Estevan Point lighthouse north of Tofino to the North Coast near Prince Rupert.

Often they have to rough it, cooking their own meals and camping out by night and then hunting for plastic by day. Other crews get the luxury of eating and sleeping offshore, on boats normally used by guests paying thousands of dollars to tour the B.C. coast but now employed in removing junk.

The chunks of foam Boulton pointed out — which he judged to be "fairly fresh," according to his seasoned eye — had likely been on the beach for only a matter of months. But already some of it had crumbled and mixed in with the topsoil.

WATCH | B.C. beach cleanup uncovers every imaginable kind of plastic:

Plastic on B.C.'s remote beaches

2 years ago
Duration 0:40
Crews have been encountering every type of plastic as they embark on a massive effort to clean up 1,200 km of B.C. coastline.

"You can see already with this degradation, it's become part of the ground," Boulton said, digging into the earth and revealing a mix of green shore grass, dark soil and white bits of plastic foam.

"On the first appearance, you look into this pristine habitat and don't see anything, and then you come and step back here and see big chunks of foam that are just going to devastate the environment."

Millions of tonnes of plastic entering oceans

An astonishing seven million tonnes of plastic enter the world's oceans each and every year, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Chesterman Beach, south of Tofino, at dusk. (Greg Rasmussen/CBC)

Once plastics begin to break down, cleanup becomes more difficult. That's why the people doing the hard work on the coast target the largest pieces. Plastic never entirely disappears, but it does break down into progressively smaller pieces. Eventually, it becomes what's known as microplastic, too small for the human eye to see.

A recent study in the Pacific Ocean found microscopic bits of plastic in every one of hundreds of water samples collected over thousands of square kilometres. All of the fish, squid and shrimp collected in the same study were also found to have microplastics inside them. In B.C., oysters destined for the dinner plate have been found with microplastics in their flesh.

Most of those microplastics come from larger pieces breaking down, but they also are flushed into waterways from washing machines, which can release hundreds of thousands of particles every time a load of synthetic clothing is laundered, according to the journal Nature.

Many of the people working on the B.C. cleanup, including Boulton, are usually employed in the marine tourism industry, so they know first-hand the draw of the coastline and have long been troubled by the ever-growing mounds of waste visitors see on wilderness trips.

But getting the plastic off the coast means overcoming a series of daunting problems.

On a beach about 100 kilometres north of that Vancouver Island tourist favourite, Tofino, Jeff Ignace grunted as he struggled with a tangled mass of plastic netting, rope and other debris partially buried under logs washed up high on the beach.

Rope and other plastic debris regularly becomes tangled up in logs on many of B.C.'s beaches. (Greg Rasmussen/CBC)

"That right there probably weighs 200 pounds," he said. Digging in with his hands, he revealed a spent plastic shotgun shell, plastic bags, styrofoam and various bits of hard plastic, which he referred to as "shrapnel."

But most is netting and rope from the fishing industry.

"It would take a month just to clear this section alone, to clear out all of the little stuff that's in here," he said, gesturing to the pile.

A member of the Hesquiaht First Nation, Ignace grew up on these beaches and has seen the plastic pile up over his lifetime. And it's deadly, he said, having seen whales, birds and fish on the beach tangled in plastic.

"They can't fly, they can't swim, they can't eat," he said. "They starve and they die."

A member of the Hesquiaht First Nation, Jeff Ignace grew up on these beaches and has seen the plastic pile up over his lifetime. (Greg Rasmussen/CBC)

Unexpected sources

Evidence of plastic's longevity can come in surprising forms — such as washed-up hockey gear.

When he spotted something white in one of the piles collected by the crew, project manager Peter Clarkson exclaimed, "Oh, this is good!" It was a plastic hockey shin pad, which he believed was part of a load that fell off an ocean-going freighter a few decades ago.

"This is from a container spill — that's from 1994, off Cape Beale," he said, confident in the plastic's provenance.

Clarkson, who retired after a long career with Parks Canada, is helping manage the cleanup. He's spent many years as a beachcomber, troubled by the plastic onslaught, but finding some relief by turning bits of debris into sculptural art to send home a message about pollution.

Clarkson, who retired after a long career with Parks Canada, is helping manage the cleanup. He's spent many years as a beachcomber, troubled by the plastic onslaught. (Greg Rasmussen/CBC)

All the debris collected on the beach had to be sorted, cleaned and then bagged. Boulton, Ignace and the rest of the crew worked long hours, struggling over slippery logs and sharp rocks to pile the debris in bags called "supersacks."

Next, helicopters swooped in, lifting the bags and taking them to a barge. From there, it was a trip to port, where trucks are used to bring the bags to a recycling centre on the mainland, where it's further sorted and processed.

On a recent visit, the new recycling centre in Richmond, B.C., was bustling with activity. Trailer trucks pulled in and crews dragged the large bags into piles. Forklifts whirred, moving nets, ropes and barrels by the tonne.

"A lot of these materials are contaminated ... so we set this centre up to manage these materials specifically so we can create products out of ocean plastic," said Chloe Dubois, co-founder of the Ocean Legacy Foundation, a non-profit working on various aspects of ocean plastic pollution.

The entire process is very labour-intensive, made more difficult because much of the material is degraded by its time in the ocean. Some of it is being processed at the recycling centre and turned into pellets that can then be used to make new plastic products.

"It's important that we start to really stimulate the recycling industry and the use of recycled content so there's a market for these materials."

The scale 'is massive'

Dubois hopes a growing public outcry over the widespread contamination problem helps pressure industries into doing more to prevent it — and to clean up the existing mess.

"The effects of plastic pollution are really being felt on a global scale, so it's putting pressure on companies to do something about the plastics they're using and selling for their products," she said.

B.C.'s cleanup program is expected to remove about 400 tonnes of plastic from beaches. It sounds impressive, but it's just 0.00005 per cent of the 7.2 million tonnes entering the world's oceans each year.

WATCH | Cleaning up the plastic debris that is choking B.C. coastline:

Cleaning up the plastic choking B.C.’s coastline

2 years ago
Duration 8:35
Plastic and other waste is choking parts of British Columbia’s 1,200-kilometre coastline, but there’s a crew of people determined to clean up the tonnes of debris.

Despite the ongoing stream of plastic washing up onshore, it's unclear if British Columbia's multi-million-dollar cleanup will carry on after this year.

"The scale of the problem is massive," said George Heyman, B.C.'s minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. "We need to do much more to address ocean debris and its devastating impacts on marine life and food sources." 

But Heyman wouldn't comment on possible future funding.

Back on the beach, Jeff Ignace was clearly frustrated by the Sisyphean task he and others face.

"Garbage cans are made for a reason." He gestured to the ocean. "That is not supposed to be a garbage can."


Greg Rasmussen

National Reporter

Greg Rasmussen is a National Reporter for CBC news based in Vancouver. He's covered news stories across Canada and around the world for more than two decades. Follow him @CBCGreg on twitter.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now