Pull into any harbour or marina in the country and you’ll see the same thing: plastic bottles, lids, bags, food wrapping, or unidentifiable bits of debris floating on the water. Sometimes it’s just one lonely cigarette butt bobbing along with the waves. Sometimes you see a whole pile of garbage collecting in corners and under dock edges.
Take a stroll on the beach, and you’ll see it again: seaweed, stones, sandcastles, and bits of debris. Those pesky patches are everywhere.
If you’re like most people, you see the garbage, shrug your shoulders and silently curse the litterbugs. If you’re intrepid, you may even grab a skimmer net and clean it up.
What you may not realize is that these small patches of debris are symptoms of one of the biggest threats to the health of lakes and oceans.
The debris is mostly plastic, which people are dumping into the world’s waters at the rate of 8-million tons of plastic per year (and that figure is growing).
On the Great Lakes, plastics account for 80% of all debris. On the ocean, some estimates peg it even higher, at 90%. The famous “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is a plastic-strewn stretch of the Pacific Ocean that may be as large as 15,000,000 square kilometres.
The debris you can see is just the tip of the plastic iceberg. Most plastic pollution is difficult to spot. The plastic is less than a few millimetres long. It often floats just under the surface.
Plastic wreaks havoc on the natural environment. It splits into smaller pieces, but it does not break down in the environment. Fish and animals mistake the tiny specs for food. Their bellies fill up with plastic, and they starve. Plastic debris also helps attracts contaminants and can even create large floating mats that lure fish away from their natural habitat.
Where is this plastic coming from? Litter, obviously, is one source. Garbage is thrown or blows overboard and washes into the water from land.
The other sources might surprise you. Clothes have tiny strands of plastic. When you do your laundry, you are also flushing plastic down the drain.
Soaps and toothpastes are also a major problem. One tube of toothpaste can have 300,000 microbeads in it. The teeny tiny “micro-scrubbers” that are supposed to make your teeth and skin shiny wash down the drain. Then, because each bead is too small to be captured, they end up being flushed into the water from wastewater treatment plants.
Cigarette butts are some of the worst culprits. When you flick your spent butt off the boat, it doesn’t go away. It joins with hundreds of thousands of other pieces of plastic debris and hangs around for decades.
With more plastic concentrating in the water each year, it's no surprise that boaters are a big part of the story. The Pacific Garbage Patch was first spotted by a sailor. An organization on the Atlantic takes student sailors trolling for plastic, instead of fish, as part of a multi-year research project. On the Great Lakes, boats of all shapes and sizes are being used by researchers to study debris.
The plastic problem is one of the greatest challenges we face. With so many products used by so many people in every country on earth, it can seem overwhelming. But starting here, at home, on the waters we use every day, you can make a big difference.
Three simple ways boaters can help curb plastic pollution:
- Switch to refillable water bottles and food containers.
- Dispose of all your waste properly (including your cigarette butts).
- Avoid soaps and toothpastes with microbeads.
This series is supported by the National Water Centre, the country’s first facility dedicated to strengthening the cultural connection between Canadians and their waterways. Managed by Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, the centre promotes swimmable, drinkable, fishable water through community-building, information sharing, and leadership development.