The Current

Oceans 'absolutely choked' by plastic bottles and microplastic fibres

Our oceans are choking from plastic water bottles washing up on the beach to tiny microplastic fibres beneath the sea. It's not clear what the long-term effects will be. The Current explores the efforts to haul tons of plastic off Vancouver's west coast.
Rob O'Dea managed a cleanup on Vancouver island using a barge and helicopter. He says someone needs to step up and cover the cost of huge shoreline cleanups. (Jake Costello)

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You would hope that a $140,000 dollar coastal cleanup that involved hundreds of volunteers and used a helicopter and a barge would leave the beaches on the west coast of Vancouver Island looking pretty good.

But Rob O'Dea says when the Living Oceans Society finished slinging 40 tonnes of garbage (mostly plastic) from shore to the "GarBarge" many beaches were still "absolutely choked" with water bottles, fishing gear, and fishing totes the size of hot tubs.

"We maybe picked up five to 10 per cent of what's on just the beaches of Vancouver Island," he tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

In September. a helicopter hoisted 40 tonnes of garbage - mostly plastic - and slung it onto a 45-metre-long barge, nicknamed 'The Gar-Barge.' (Jake Costello)

O'Dea estimates a third of it drifted in as a result of the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, but most it was from more routine sources.

"And up in Cape Scott, this was the third year that our organization has cleaned up those beaches, and each year there's more on the beach than there was the year before."

To add to the troubles, the million-dollar gift from the government of Japan that helped fund this work is now exhausted.

Former commercial fisherman Ron Simmer hunts for material for his next piece of plastic art. (Jake Costello)

Meanwhile, Max Liboiron and her students at Memorial University are studying the plastic in the waters and sea creatures around Newfoundland. She applauds the cleanup on the west coast, but says "it's like bailing out a boat before you've plugged the hole."

"The problem with plastics is that they're very light, they endure for a long time, and the ocean is downhill from everything," Liboiron tells Tremonti.

Buoys collected in Vancouver Island cleanup using a barge and helicopter. (Jake Costello)

And once they get into the ocean, they break apart into smaller and smaller pieces, toxicants collect on them, and then they enter the food chain, and may affect human health in "insidious ways."

Liboiron says reducing the amount of plastic that's made is the only way to begin to address the problem.

Listen to the full conversation.

This segment was produced by Halifax network producer Alex Mason.