Ten days ago, microplastics researcher Peter Ross filtered one cubic metre of water scooped from Vancouver’s inner harbour near the Convention Centre through a fine sieve.
Only particles smaller than five millimetres made it through, and in that sample, he and his team found 1,050 synthetic plastic particles.
Ninety per cent of the red, blue, white, yellow and pink plastic bits were fibres; 10 per cent were fragments.
Using a specialized spectrometer at the Coastal Ocean Research Institute in West Vancouver, the team identified each piece — polyester, rayon, modified cellulose, polyethylene and polypropylene. Those plastics come from textiles, clothing, carpets and rope.
“This is the stuff that confuses zooplankton and other fish,” Ross said Wednesday after releasing the findings on the opening day of the Globe Forum.
Fish mistake the plastic for food, and it can cause some species to suffocate. For others, it fills their guts and artificially satiates them. “It can lead to starvation, weakness and death,” said Ross.
If there is any good news, it’s that there were no microbeads in the sample. Until recently, microbeads were used in dozens of different cosmetic products, including toothpaste, soaps and scrubs, as well as in industrial cleaners. Canada, the United States and Europe now all regulate their use.
Ross, who is one of the world’s leading microplastics researchers and vice-president of the Ocean Wise Conservation Association, called the secondary microplastics such as those in the sample “a more mysterious, elusive challenge” to both find and identify.
But the more he and his team of 12 looks, the more they find. They are finding them in samples taken offshore in the Pacific Ocean as well as the Arctic. Recent samples taken in the Scotia Sea and in the Southern Ocean off the Antarctic Peninsula have yet to reach the lab in West Vancouver.
But even before the sampling began in the far south last month, Ross was certain that some microplastics would be found.
During the Antarctic sampling, Ocean Wise president John Nightingale did visual checks.
“There were a couple of fibres in the samples from the Scotia Sea and there was a lot of phytoplankton, which gave them a green colour,” he said. “But there is noticeably less than what we saw in the Arctic samples.”
These are early days in the research that only really began four years ago. Until then, the focus had been on the larger pieces that wash up on beaches or collect in ocean gyres where the currents converge.
It means that it’s still too early to pinpoint the sources of the plastics and too early to reach any conclusions other than that it is time to reduce what we are using.
The data are shocking. Every minute of every day, the amount of plastic going into oceans is the equivalent to one dump-truck load.
Globally, a million single-use plastic bottles are sold every minute. And estimates are that if something isn’t done, plastics use will double within the next 25 to 30 years, resulting in more plastic in the sea than fish by weight.
Ocean Wise wants to spearhead that change. Wednesday, it launched a campaign that will eventually be available in 80 languages. The goal is to get as many individuals as possible to start taking responsibility for reducing the amount of plastic they use.
Among the first to sign he pledge (ocean.org/pledge) were three federal cabinet ministers who are in Vancouver for the Globe Forum — Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, Transport Minister Marc Garneau, and Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc — as well as Premier John Horgan and Vancouver Quadra MP Joyce Murray, who said Canada plans to have ocean plastics on the G7 agenda when the leaders meet in June in Quebec.
David Labistour, CEO of Mountain Equipment Co-op, was also there to sign the pledge. His company is helping fund Ross’ research so that it can make decisions about sourcing its clothing, especially products such as fleece which slough off thousands of microfibres every time they are put in the laundry.
Until there is more information, Labistour’s only advice is: Wash your fleece clothing less and make sure to clean out your laundry filters.
Within minutes of signing the pledge to #BePlasticWise, the first emailed challenge lands in your inbox. By signing up, people will get one every month.
The first? Take a reusable mug to cafes.
Along with the challenge was this rather startling statistic: Every year, Americans discard 14 billion single-use coffee cups. Placed end-to-end, that’s enough to circle the equator 55 times.
Closer to coffee-mad home, the City of Vancouver estimates that 2.6 million poly-coated cups are tossed every week, plus an unknown amount of hard plastic and polystyrene foams ones. Those disposable cups, lids and sleeves comprise nearly half of what is dumped into street trash cans. It costs taxpayers $2.5 million a year to collect and dispose of them.
Among the options the city is considering is a carrot — a five-cent refund for recyclers — or sticks such as banning businesses from using them, or requiring them to use only compostable or recyclable ones.
Meantime, Ocean Wise didn’t say whether it plans to hold the pledgers accountable.
But if you see those cabinet ministers or the premier with a single-use cup in their hands, feel free to shame them.