A federal plan to eliminate plastic waste by 2030 lacks the urgency and dollars to protect marine ecosystems on the receiving end of an ocean current conveyer belt along the Island’s west coast, critics say.
In 2020, urgency is more critical than ever with a wave of PPE — personal protective equipment — and other pandemic waste expected to wash ashore next year along the coast, said Capt. Josh Temple of Coastal Restoration Society (CRS) and Clayoquot CleanUp, two not-for-profit groups.
“While it’s encouraging government is finally getting to this point, I’m hesitant to remain optimistic that it’s really going to make a difference along the B.C. coast,” said Temple, who is engaged in marine debris retrieval. “We need a partnership with the federal and provincial governments, marine industries, charitable foundations and First Nations.”
A national strategy on zero plastic waste, announced Oct. 7 by Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, includes an integrated management plan to stem the flow of three million tonnes of plastic waste that Canadian throw away each year. Single-use plastics will be banned next year.
“Our plan embraces the transition towards a circular economy, recycled-content standards and targets for recycling rates,” Wilkinson said, promising the plan will “protect wildlife and waters, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create jobs.”
“We also intend to ban plastic bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery and hard-to-recycle take-out containers,” the minister said.
Temple has heard promises before without seeing results on the water. Funding doesn’t reach the people actually doing the work, he said.
“The lack of funding from the provincial and federal governments is a real problem here,” Temple said. “The Canadian record on recycling is deplorable. Absolutely it’s a step in the right direction, but in terms of meaningful difference, which is important to the future of marine diversity and the coastal environment, this is not really making a difference.”
He points to local cleanup efforts since 2017, which have removed 900,000 kilograms (two million pounds) of waste from Clayoquot Sound at a cost of $1.5 million. Only $1,000 of that came from the provincial government through B.C. Parks. There has been no federal funding.
The Clayoquot Sound mariner has specialized in protecting marine environments for most of the last 30 years. In the one sound alone, his crew typically sees anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 pounds each year, “and we’re not even keeping up,” Temple said.
“To make a meaningful dent we’re talking $200 million,” he added.
They handle projects along the Island’s west coast and beyond, contracting with First Nations and other coastal communities for vessels and labour when possible. People welcome the jobs in late fall and early spring, usually slow times for employment on the coast.
Plastic waste has only increased in volume in recent years along the west coast, Temple said. At the same time, scientists have gained a clearer understanding of how plastic affects marine life.
A 2015 study found up to 9,000 plastic particles per cubic metre of seawater off the B.C. coast, particles small enough to be ingested by phytoplankton, a foundation of the food chain. These are consumed by zooplankton and make their way into fish, as many as 91 particles per day in returning adult salmon.
Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns tabled Canada’s first plastic reduction legislation through a private members’ bill three years ago, motivated by the Hanjin marine debris spill in 2016. Since then he’s raised the issue 79 times in the House of Commons. While applauding the new plan as a sign the government is finally aware of the seriousness of the issue, he said there are still no clear reduction targets or plan to phase out plastic production.
“In Canada, only nine percent of plastics are recycled while the public overwhelmingly supports more recycling,” he said. “It’s choking out our ecosystems.”
Government has also targeted derelict fishing gear, another threat to west coast ecosystems, without holding industry to account with a polluter-pay system. Industry — and by extension, consumers of products provided by industry — should be paying, not the taxpayer, Johns insists.
Johns has criticized the Liberal government over the absence funding for a lengthy list of groups leading the charge against plastic waste. He agrees the situation has taken on greater urgency as a result of COVID-19. Now is the time to act.
“We’ve never used more plastic,” Johns said. “It couldn’t be more important and more timely. We need to capture it and deal with it.”
He sees an opportunity for greater involvement by Indigenous groups through the Coastal Guardian Watchmen program, linking it to recent funding for retrieving derelict fishing gear, another grave threat to marine life. The $8.3-million Ghost Gear Fund backs 22 projects across the country for two years. Plastic recovery could be similarly funded, bringing more jobs to coastal communities, Johns suggested.
While unveiling the plastics plan, Wilkinson also announced funding for 14 Canadian-led plastic reduction initiatives. UBC research on consumer choices is among those projects, but west coast cleanup is not.
Dianne Ignace of Hesquiaht First Nation has been actively engaged in local shoreline cleanup efforts with her late husband Dave. She feels the onus should be on consumers to clean up their act.
“People have to be conscious more of ways to reuse plastics rather than throw them away,” Ignace said, citing disposable coffee cups washing up on beaches as a prime example.
Plastic shopping bags, on the other hand, will be missed on the west coast, where paper bags don’t hold up to the rigors of travel by sea, she said.
“I don’t think that helps people; plastic bags get reused and they get reused a lot,” Ignace said. “It would be more beneficial to get rid of plastic bottles.”
Polystyrene foam from shipping containers and single-use plastic bottles are among the most common forms of marine waste seen in west coast waters.
The federal government invites feedback on its zero plastics plan. Comments will be accepted until Dec. 9 at firstname.lastname@example.org. Regulations will be finalized by the end of 2021.