Now or Never

In one year, this woman has picked up 2 tonnes of plastic ocean trash

Karen Jenner doesn't consider herself an environmentalist. But that hasn't stopped her from picking up more than 2,200 kilograms of trash from Nova Scotia beaches in the past year.

Karen Jenner collects garbage from the Bay of Fundy

Just a small sample of the tonnes of plastic trash Karen Jenner has picked up along the Bay of Fundy. (CBC / Emma Smith, Submitted by Karen Jenner)

Karen Jenner scans a rocky Nova Scotia beach, looking for dots of colour amidst the rocks and seaweed — signs of plastic garbage deposited by the Bay of Fundy's massive tides. 

"Today you could be here for a long time, because there's a lot of trash on the beach."

Two to three times a week, Jenner hits the beaches on the Bay of Fundy to pick up trash, filling five-gallon buckets with everything from fishing garbage, such as rope and lobster bands, to household items, including bottle caps, plastic cutlery and plastic bottles. 

In a year of collecting, she's taken home more than 2,200 kilograms worth of trash.

"It's a drip in the bucket," she said. "There could be 100 of me out doing this, and yet the trash would still be coming in. There's just so much in the water."

An assortment of items collected by Karen Jenner on the beaches of the Bay of Fundy. (Submitted by Karen Jenner)

'I decided I'm going to collect as much as I can'

But Jenner says she wasn't always so motivated to collect trash. 

Though she grew up going to the beach, garbage on the shore never captured her attention. 

"I didn't even really see it I guess, like a lot of people wouldn't."

When she did notice trash, such as the packing straps from the boxes of frozen bait used by fishermen, she says she would break them apart so that they weren't in a loop and then toss them back on the beach. 

"It never even dawned on me that maybe you should pick them up and bring them home." 

Jenner carries packing straps from boxes of frozen fishing bait. Jenner says she used to break the straps so they weren't in loops and then toss them back on the beach, 'and now I can't even dream of doing that.' (Moira Donovan/CBC)

But roughly a year ago, Jenner says she suddenly found herself looking at the beach differently. 

"I don't know how it happened or why," she said. "Seeing the amount of plastic on the beach for some reason, it just struck a chord with me, and I decided I'm going to collect as much as I can for as long as I can."

'We have a plastic problem here'

As she moves down the shore, Jenner stops every few paces to cast a practised eye over what she finds. While most of what she collects is the "same old garbage," she finds pleasure in making new discoveries, like a commemorative plastic bag that is over 40 years old.

"It's neat when you find something different."

When Jenner is done collecting, she loads the trash in the trunk of her car and takes it home to sort and weigh or count the items. 

Once Jenner has finished collecting, she takes the trash to the coverall attached to her barn to be sorted. (Moira Donovan/CBC)

Once they're sorted, Jenner photographs the collection and posts the photos on her Facebook page.

Cataloguing the items is important, she said, because it helps people be more aware of the scale of the issue. 

"If people aren't aware of a problem, it's hard for them to relate to it. When people think about plastic and problems with plastic, we tend to think about places other than Nova Scotia, but we have a plastic problem here."

Black Rock Beach, on the Bay of Fundy, is one of the beaches Karen Jenner regularly visits to collect garbage. (Moira Donovan/CBC)

Sometimes, the immensity of the problem is hard to handle, even for Jenner.

This past winter, on a trip to the beach at Hall's Harbour, she found herself overwhelmed by what she found. 

"The tide was coming in, and it was full of tiny pieces of Styrofoam and rope," she said. "I couldn't believe it — that in Nova Scotia — I was seeing what I was seeing. I was so discouraged, and I thought, 'Why am I wasting my time doing what I'm doing?'"

But she says she's been able to overcome those moments by focusing on how her cleanups are removing hazards for local birds and marine life, and how her example can inspire other people to stage cleanups of their own. 

Jenner holds some of the needles she's collected from the beach. Weighing and numbering what she finds makes the problem more real for people, Jenner says. (Moira Donovan/CBC)

"What's been neat about it is that other people are going to the beach now and picking things up, and that's nice to see."

"You don't need to go and come back with 100 pounds, or 100 things. All you need to do is, if you see something where it shouldn't be, pick it up, and anybody can do that."