Every month for the past five years, a group of volunteers have dedicated their free time to searching for tiny plastic debris at Wickaninnish Beach.
“What we’re looking at is the volume and the distribution as well as the types of microplastics found in our local areas,” said Sophie Vanderbanck, Marine Debris Coordinator and Biologist with the Ucluelet Aquarium. “Since 2019 to the current year now, we’ve found 1,175 millilitres of microplastics.”
The amount is roughly the size of 10 hockey pucks and while it may not seem like a lot, microplastics range in size from just one to five millimetres in length. Vanderbanck says even a tiny amount can be lead to physical changes or even death in birds and marine life.
“Definitely found bioaccumulations of these toxins in marine life,” said Vanderbanck.
Vanderbanck says the group has mostly discovered hard plastics, made up of everyday consumer goods, which have been broken down over time. Other types of plastics include nurdles — small plastic beads used to produce larger plastic materials — and styrofoam.
The largest amounts of plastic are gathered during the winter months when tides are strongest and data indicates that the recurring amounts of microplastics in the area have stayed consistent since 2017, which is when the group began the initiative, according to Vanderbanck.
The volunteers known as “citizen scientists” are organized by the Ucluelet Aquarium and their research has led to real change. In 2019, the group’s research and advocacy helped influence Ucluelet and neighboring Tofino to ban single use plastic bags and straws.
“Through our citizen science we’re connecting people with the issue of plastic,” said Vanderbanck. “From there, we’re hoping further work can be done.”
Earlier this week, the grassroots effort received a financial boost from non-profits Return-It and the Pacific Salmon Foundation.
“What we’re really interested in is partnering with a number of organizations to be part of a solution and get more information,” said Return-It chief executive officer, Allen Langdon. “Then hopefully work side by side with governments and local communities and try and really get at this problem.”
Vanderbanck says the funding amount — a figure which was not disclosed — should go a long way.
“So helping to continue with this research, helping to make this data more available as well is something we’re hoping to do so we can create this open-source of data.”
The global battle against microplastics is far from over, but the dedicated volunteers are hoping their hard work on this one west coast beach can help inspire a sea of change.