Ever been to a beach and noticed garbage lying around? Ever wondered where plastic goes after you have finished using it?

This past Wednesday, the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre teamed up with the international Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), ENVIRON International Corporation and Earl Marriott Secondary school in this year’s SETAC Make-A-Difference Service Project, “Ocean Pollution.” The day was a great opportunity for participants to learn about the impacts and influences of plastic pollution and how even small changes can make a big difference in keeping our shorelines clean.

Students came together to help better understand how microplastics affect the environment.

Students came together to help better understand how microplastics affect the environment.

Led by Vancouver Aquarium staff and researchers, participants got a close-up look at our Stanley Park shores. While the beach is home for many creatures, it has also become the hiding place of shoreline litter from a variety of sources. Whether discarded intentionally on the beach or brought there by natural forces such as wind or rain, shoreline litter can negatively affect water quality, coastal habitat and marine life.

At first glance during the event, the beach looked well-groomed and clean. However, after less than an hour, participants had removed over three kilograms of garbage from the beach. These items included 231 cigarette butts, 155 food wrappers, a bicycle headlight, a baseball, and an underwire from a bra.

Vancouver Aquarium Shoreline Cleanup.

Plastics big and small can negatively impact the environment and the animals that live there.

Despite removing this amount of garbage from a seemingly tidy beach, “Shoreline cleanups are a temporary solution and even after shoreline cleanups happen, there is still a lot of unseen plastic particles that stay on our shoreline because of their small size,” says Jean Fong, communications & marketing coordinator for the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. These particles consist of small pieces of plastic that are broken down from larger items, and are nearly invisible to the naked eye. They are known as microplastics. Microplastics are problematic, because we don’t know if they are being mistaken for food by sea creatures and other animals. Research by the Aquarium’s Ocean Pollution Research Program recently sounded the alarm about the pervasive nature of microplastics in B.C. coastal waters.

Microplastic in our waters

A close up look at microplastic under a microscope.

In order to look at these microplastics, scientists and participants collected sand samples on the beach and brought them back to the lab. There, they were able to isolate the individual particles and look at them under a microscope. Despite the microplastics being so small, it was surprising to see the range in what these particles looked like; everything from small crystal-like structures to a pink and blue wavy string. In the Vancouver Aquarium’s Wet Lab, participants discussed conservation issues, while getting hands-on with invertebrates that could be affected by garbage and microplastics.

Vancouver Aquarium Wet Lab

Students get hands on with aquatic life in the Wet Lab.

What can we do about garbage in the ocean? As Peter Ross, director of ocean pollution research at the Vancouver Aquarium says of plastic in his blog post, “Once it’s out there, it’s game over.” So, that means that we need to prevent these items from going into the ocean in the first place. Reducing our reliance on plastic-based materials and making sure that our waste goes in the proper place are two ways to start.

In 2013, over 58,000 participants removed over 99,000 kilograms of garbage off Canada’s shorelines. Make a difference for your local shoreline and the communities and wildlife that depend on them by participating in or hosting a Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup.

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