Startling findings in a study that spans six decades
A comprehensive report of data spanning six decades concludes the vast majority of plastic pollution along the province’s coasts originates right here.
One of the report’s co-authors, Max Liboiron, an associate professor of geography at Memorial University, said that’s surprising because plastic pollution is a global problem and most other places in the world get other people's plastic.
“Not us. We’re a net exporter, so that was a shock,” she said.
Another co-author, Nadia Duman, analyzed fish tags to track where they were ending up. Duman found that plastic originating in Newfoundland and Labrador made its way to the western coast of Europe, from northern Scotland to southern Spain.
The study was conducted by Liboiron’s Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research, and included collaborations with people from all around the world in order to find and synthesize all the data — a process that took four years.
Cigarette butts major source
Liboiron said another surprising finding was that cigarette butts are a huge source of plastic pollution in the province, accounting for about 24 per cent of shoreline waste. She said globally litter is not a primary source of plastic pollution, rather it usually blows off of infrastructure or involves fishing gear.
But the patterns they saw with cigarette butts showed they ended up along shorelines because people discarded them there, not because they blew away from a landfill, for example.
Liboiron said if one kind of plastic could be banned which would make the biggest dent in cleaning up Newfoundland and Labrador's coastline, it would be cigarette filters.
“It’s one of the worst plastics, and it’s a major source in this province.”
Despite the hoopla around a plastic bag ban, the study found that plastic bags account for just two per cent of plastic pollution in the province, and most of those bags were of the type that fall under the exemptions in the bag ban scheduled to come into effect Oct. 1.
Liboiron said that doesn’t mean the ban isn’t going to work, rather it’s unclear. She said the good news is that they now have a baseline for the amount of plastic bags found in many places around the province, so they will be able to tell in a few years whether the ban puts a dent in the amount of plastic.
The effect of all this plastic on marine life is an increase in the amount of microplastics ingested by birds and fish off the province's coast.
The report says ingestion figures for nearly all species are increasing. One shocking example is plastic ingestion by Leach’s storm petrels, which shot up 940 per cent from the 1980s to 2010s.
Liboiron said the answer to the province's plastic problem doesn’t lie with simply cleaning up the ocean.
“It’s about turning off the tap,” she said, indicating that putting a stop to the source of the plastic is a key area of intervention.
That’s because many plastics hang around in the ocean for decades, leaching chemicals and fragmenting into smaller and smaller pieces, which are ingested by animals.
“You have to stop it because once it’s in the ocean, it is there,” she said.
Liboiron recommended a provincial government-initiated monitoring program for plastic pollution.
In five years’ time, the group will conduct the study again.