A daily beach walk, soaked in gorgeous scenery of Newfoundland’s west coast, sounds like the ideal tonic to 2020.
But the modern world is impossible to leave behind on Nancy Pearson’s strolls along Black Bank Beach, near Stephenville Crossing. She began her treks six years ago, when she moved home after decades away to find her childhood sandy playground awash in indestructible residue: plastic.
She’s become an avid beachcomber, and now fills up a bag of whatever’s around each and every day. Pearson has found everything from the disgusting (diapers) to the bizarre (false teeth — later reunited with their owner), but mostly she collects bits and bobs of plastic, largely from the fishing detritus known as ghost gear.
She’s learned she has to self-impose limits on collecting the never-ending tide of trash.
“Now I just tell myself, no, you just can’t do it it all. Like today, my dog was like, ‘no, let’s keep going.’ And then I said, you have to stop right now. You have your bag filled. Now go closer to the water and ignore looking at the ghost gear, mostly ghost gear, coming in,” Pearson said.
Pearson’s bagfuls from Black Bank Beach are echoed in a new province-wide report of trash on beaches. The Newfoundland and Labrador Coastline Litter Audit, released recently by the Multi-Materials Stewardship Board, surveyed 30 sites — Black Bank wasn’t among them — and profiled each according to amount and type of garbage, along with other categories.
Among all categories, plastic was king.
“When it comes to material waste, plastic waste was by far the biggest offender,” Ashley Burke, a senior policy advisor with the MMSB and a co-author of the report, told CBC Radio’s The Broadcast.
In fact, 69 per cent of all waste found was plastic; the top six offenders comprising that were shotgun shells, plastic ropes or nets, bottles, fishing tags, plastic bags, and miscellaneous, unidentifiable bits.
Newfoundland and Labrador has the longest shoreline of any province, and the MMSB’s study was its first effort to catalogue the province’s coastal trash.
The 2020 audit is meant to complement a similar report from 2016 that quantified roadside litter.
The studies, side by side, offer a dismal portrait of debris, with the coastlines winning a dubious honour: the beach audits revealed its 10 worst sites contained 2,586 pieces of trash, almost 1,000 more pieces than the 10 top highway offenders from four years ago.
During the study, Burke said, auditors had hoped to be able to say whether coastline trash was washing in from the sea or blowing down from further inland. While there were hints, they didn’t get enough data to say for sure.
“We did find that no items of any size or type were more prevalent down by the coastline than they were up by the roadside, so that leads us to believe the majority of our waste is coming from land,” she said.
“But unfortunately we’re going to need to do probably some further research to really get that strong result.”
The study was clear that cobblestone beaches were more trash-filled than their sandy counterparts, thanks to all the nooks and crannies rocks provide. But questions remain as to why some beaches were worse than others: Newman’s Cove, on the Bonavista Peninsula, was the dirtiest by far, more than double the No. 2 offender of St. Shott’s.
“Whether it’s the tidal pattern or the current, or it is indeed coming from mostly land-based sources, and it’s say, pedestrian based, it’s hard to say. But definitely something unique going on in that area,” Burke said, adding further scientific study would be needed to parse out that mystery.
In contrast, the two sites in Labrador — at the public beaches in Pinware and Forteau — were found to be the cleanest.
Help, and hope, for the future
The report noted several times how unidentifiable many of the pieces of plastic litter found were: small fragments of unknown origin, and useless for any future purpose.
To address the problem, the report called on more action plans toward zero plastic waste, which in part requires society to redefine plastic as “a valuable commodity” to be re-imagined instead of tossed away.
Burke hopes this report — that adds onto the stack of others noting plastic pollution problems — helps governments at all levels sit up and take notice, and that people of all walks of life pitch in.
“I think there’s a lot here in the report that can inform future policy, as it relates to specifically plastic, but also any type of coastline litter,” she said.
“When it comes to say, our not-for-profit groups and communities, I think there’s a lot there for them to think about as well, with respect to frequency and targeted areas for cleanups.”
Pearson has organized clean-ups at Blank Bank Beach in the past, although COVID-19 nixed those plans for 2020.
But she wonders if her daily walks, documented on Instagram in in the hopes of attracting attention to the ever-increasing issue, may actually be masking it.
“Sometimes I wonder, am I hiding the problem? By cleaning the beach, this makes people unaware that it’s escalating, our ocean trash, with all the ghost gear. And if I left it, how disturbing it would be for others and then the message might be clearer to them, that it’s getting worse?” she said.
Pearson would like to see more government action taken. She applauds the province’s plastic bag ban, that came into effect in October, making Newfoundland and Labrador the second in the country to take such a step. And as she looks toward the federal government’s impending single-use plastics ban in 2021, she sees room for this tiny province, with such immense and intricate coastlines, to be a leader and go further.
“If our province could set an example, I just think I’d be just so proud,” she said.