Skip to main content

Ocean debris believed to be from Japan is posed for a photograph on Long Beach in Tofino, B.C. Wednesday, April, 18, 2012. The debris which has been collected by various locals say that they have seen more debris coming ashore lately with what looks to be Japanese writing on it and could be related to the Japanese tsunami. Experts in ocean currents say that a large debris field of various materials is out to sea and could be coming towards North America and could hit the shores of British Columbia within the next year.Jonathan Hayward

For Lucas Harris, every piece of garbage that a small group of surfers collects on B.C.'s supposedly pristine beaches helps to paint a bigger picture on marine debris.

The plastic bottles, fuel containers, buoys, fish nets, ropes and blocks of Styrofoam his group collects (more than one ton of garbage on a recent outing) all help to reveal patterns of waste in the mass of detritus washing ashore daily on Canada's coastlines.

"If we go back … next year and the year after and analyze the same sample site, we are able to detect trends. We can see growth in debris levels, changes in debris types and have a better understanding of … the changes and composition of debris over time," said Mr. Harris, a spokesman for the Victoria chapter of the international Surfrider Foundation.

The group rarely finds anything of value on their monthly beach cleanups on southern Vancouver Island. There are occasional personal items – a hockey glove and a baby doll found last Saturday for example – but most of it is just plastic junk.

"If it was valuable … I don't think people would let it become waste so easily," he said after returning from a remote beach where 17 people picked up more than 2,000 pounds of garbage in a little more than one day.

"Take a plastic bottle," he said. "There's little value added to that at the consumption level to encourage people to hang on to it, so over the side it goes. That's the real problem … it's like all this stuff we find cast off by the fishing industry. It's cheap, so they don't care if they lose it."

Mr. Harris and the Surfriders hit a new beach each month in and around Victoria. Once a year, they go to a remote, wilderness beach for a cleanup.

They got a surprise last weekend, when, working with BC Parks, they visited a breathtakingly beautiful strip of white sand on Vargas Island, near Tofino, in Clayoquot Sound, which was designated a biosphere by the United Nations in 2000.

Vargas Island is one of those places that helped the government brand the province "Supernatural B.C." in a global advertising campaign.

But Mr. Harris found it, like other beaches facing the open Pacific, has also become a global garbage dump.

"It looks like a beautiful beach from afar, but when you look at it really closely it is totally polluted. I think it was a real eye opener for some of the volunteers," he said. "You take a step and pick something up, you take another step and pick something up and all of a sudden these bags start to fill."

He said the debris was sorted into three broad categories: hard plastics, Styrofoam and ropes. The latter category included "bags and bags of … fishing nets."

The group also set out grids on some stretches of beach, to scientifically track the amount and type of garbage found. The hope is to one day have enough data to be able to persuade government and industry to take action, perhaps by limiting some types of materials at their source.

Mr. Harris said society has made great progress in recent years in recycling land-based garbage, but the same thing hasn't happened at sea, with the oceans used as open receptacles.

He said the beach debris problem on the West Coast is already bad, and because of last year's tsunami in Japan, it is about to get a lot worse. An estimated 1.3 million tons of tsunami debris is now floating across the Pacific, with the bulk expected to start arriving next summer.

Mr. Harris said the beach crews have yet to encounter any signs of that debris, although some high floating material – a soccer ball, basketball and a few hundred buoys – have washed ashore from Alaska to California.

A number of state governments and the province of B.C. have established plans to work with volunteer groups to identify any sensitive items that are found in the wave of common debris.

And the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, an annual national event sponsored by Loblaw Companies Ltd., has set up an online registry specifically to help volunteers deal with tsunami debris.

Jill Dwyer, manager of the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, said 700 people have signed up already.

"The issue of shoreline debris is not new," said Ms. Dwyer "But I think the tsunami debris has raised awareness."