Fishing nets, buoys, water bottles, giant chunks of plastic foam, shoes and detritus from the Japanese tsunami are meant to offer visitors to the Maritime Museum of B.C. in Victoria just a tiny window into the vast array of plastics that make up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Tiny because, as the exhibit points out, the patch is now about the size of Alaska.
“There is no such thing as ‘away.’ When we throw anything away, it must go somewhere,” says Annie Leonard, creator of the film The Story of Stuff, in a notation to visitors.
The exhibit, opened this month, is the latest by cultural venues to use art to call attention to swaths of plastic and debris that wash up along British Columbia’s shorelines. The patch, also known as the Pacific trash vortex, is the world’s largest accumulation of ocean plastic and debris. It swirls in the north Pacific between California and Hawaii.
“We thought it would be a timely and important issue to explore, so we as citizens can understand the effects of our daily lives on the environment, our health and our economy,” said Brittany Vis, the museum’s associate director.
Last year, the Vancouver Aquarium debuted artist Douglas Coupland’s Vortex. It features a 50,000-litre tank packed with garbage and debris that Mr. Coupland collected from the shores of Haida Gwaii, much of which came from Japan in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami. In the United States, a travelling exhibit called Washed Ashore features 17 sculptures of ocean animals made entirely from plastics fished from the Pacific.
A 2018 study estimated that 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic and debris weighing 79,000 tonnes float in the garbage patch, which covers 1.6 million square kilometres. By comparison, Alaska is around 1.7 million square kilometres. The same study found that while microplastics accounted for 8 per cent of the total mass, they comprised 94 per cent of the individual pieces.
University of British Columbia graduate student Vanessa Fladmark co-authored a 2018 paper that analyzed cleanups conducted between 2013 and 2016 along B.C.’s shorelines, including the North Coast, Vancouver Island and the Southern Strait of Georgia. She said microplastics, which are less than five millimetres long, are particularly insidious.
“We’re finding an absurd amount in remote areas. They have the huge [debris] items and they have microplastics that just cover the sand,” Ms. Fladmark said, adding that it’s hard to say where exactly all the plastic comes from, but it’s a global problem.
“We find bottles washing ashore [and] some of them have English labels, some Russian, some Japanese. Definitely there’s a lot of ocean-source garbage and I think it’s coming from everywhere.”
Each region Ms. Fladmark and her peers studied had different kinds of litter. In Vancouver and Victoria, cigarette butts were common, but larger items are cleaned up more often.
“Whereas if you go to some remote place on Haida Gwaii that you have to boat three hours to, you see a mountain of debris,” said Ms. Fladmark. “I’m trying to let people know how big an issue it is, even if we don’t see it here in the city.”
Lilly Woodbury, the chapter manager of Surfrider Pacific Rim in Tofino, echoed Ms. Fladmark’s concerns. She said in 2017, Surfrider volunteers collected 16,000 plastic water bottles and plastic foam equivalent to the volume of 36 cars from beaches in the area. It was a particularly bad year, after a Korean cargo ship lost 35 shipping containers off the coast of Vancouver Island in late 2016.
In addition to washing up on B.C.’s shores from across the world, a lot of debris originates at home, Ms. Woodbury said.
“British Columbians and Canadians in general need to look at their consumption, because we’re also finding a ton of stuff from B.C. We need to care of what we’re responsible for, which is our own actions and policies.”
Canada has the longest coastline in the world, and Ottawa says reducing plastic pollution is a top priority. Officials across levels of government are collaborating on a national strategy for reaching zero plastic waste, due out later this year.
According to Greenpeace, Canada generates about 3.25 million tonnes of plastic waste annually.