Editorial: Pervasive plastic

Published on May 17, 2017

Plastic bags cling to tree branches not too far from the ocean.

©Chantelle MacIsaac/TC Media file photo

Newfoundland is surrounded by it, Labrador is bordered by it.

It changes our weather, moderates our winters, cools our summers.

It’s integral to life here, and when we move away, we miss it keenly.

The ocean’s a huge part of our existence, from work to weather to our very sense of place.

Microplastics — tiny, tiny beads of broken up plastics — are finding their way into the tissues of marine life, meaning that we may well be eating them, buried deep in our latest tasty seafood platter.

Yet we, like many others who live near the sea, treat it like garbage.

Actually, we treat it with garbage.

And worst of all? Plastics.

Plastics are not the most common identifiable trash found in beach trash surveys. That unfortunate honour belongs to cigarette butts, which are so common as to be considered ubiquitous. But plastics have a permanence that other trash does not.

In the ocean, it travels to different shores and gets broken up into smaller and smaller pieces, but it lives on.

Plastics we throw into the sea find their way onto our beaches, and, as recent experiences with shotgun shells and other identifiable plastic waste have shown, cross the ocean to Scotland. Microplastics — tiny, tiny beads of broken up plastics — are finding their way into the tissues of marine life, meaning that we may well be eating them, buried deep in our latest tasty seafood platter.

But if you really want to think about the abuse (and waste) we heap onto and into our oceans, think for a moment about Henderson Island, an uninhabited island in the southern Pacific Ocean.

For the most part, the 3,700-hectare island is untouched by humans. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site for that reason.

Untouched, except on its beaches; researchers from the University of Tasmania and the United Kingdom’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds did a beach survey on part of the island, and now estimate that, despite its lack of human habitation, human waste — plastic waste — totals 38 million individual pieces of trash. Hermit crabs nest in it. Beaches are strewn with it. Thirteen thousand pieces a day wash up on its shores, adding to the mess every hour.

It doesn’t seem to be as densely concentrated in this province, but if you follow a river in this province to the sea, and then start following a beach that’s hard to reach and may not have seen another person’s footsteps for years, you’ll find plenty of people’s waste.

Flip-flops, sneakers, bleach bottles, plastic bags — shotgun shells, always. Plastic fishing gear — plastic pop bottles. Items that have been discarded for so long that they are bleached on the side that faces the sun.

Then stop for a moment and consider where you are standing, and that, perhaps, if you’re lucky, you’re looking along a kilometre or two of coastline, every scrap of it with plastic in view.

And then consider that this province alone has 17,542 kilometres of coastline.

Just imagine how much waste there is.