12 common things that wash up on Canadian shores

What do 76 artificial flower petals, a Purple Rain cassette, Invisalign braces, and a polar bear skin have in common? They are all items found by volunteers participating in the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, a conservation partnership between WWF-Canada and Oceanwise.

Community groups, workplaces, schools, and youth groups can organize a Shoreline Cleanup in their community to record and remove litter from a coastline. While volunteers don’t always get to record items as strange as a polar bear skin, the recorded litter has led the Shoreline Cleanup to compose a yearly Dirty Dozen list of the top twelve most common shoreline litter items. The results from 2019 show that single-use plastic items make up the greatest number of litter items that plague Canada’s shorelines.

The greatest category of litter by volume and weight found on Canada’s shorelines comes from fishing debris and illegally dumped items. Think longlines, buoys, cars, and industrial litter. But the majority of items collected during a cleanup can be classified as recreational items, says Julia Wakeling, outreach coordinator at the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, speaking during a January 2020 webinar.

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Recreational items include objects that may be forgotten on a beach trip, or might blow away by accident onto a shoreline. Cigarette butts, lighters, food wrappers, children’s toys, and fishing rods are all examples of recreational litter.

Taking the top spot on the Dirty Dozen are cigarette butts. Cigarette butts are challenging to deal with as they contain plastic, and can’t be handled by your standard city recycling centre. Wakeling says that cigarette butts collected at a Shoreline Cleanup are sent out for specialized recycling by an organization called TerraCycle.

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Next on the list are pieces of tiny plastic or foam litter. These items are a cause for alarm because Wakeling says that these small pieces of plastic are on their way to becoming microplastics. They “deteriorate into smaller pieces the longer they spend in water,” she says.

As we move down the list we run into more single-use items. Food wrappers, paper, bottle caps, plastic bags, beverage cans, and plastic bottles fill out the number three to eight spots on the Dirty Dozen. Straws come in at number nine, foam and other packaging take tenth and eleventh place, and finally, coffee cups close out the list as the twelfth most common items collected during cleanups.

Recording the litter collected along a shoreline allows the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup to provide information that can be used for policy changes to protect Canada’s waterways. In June 2019, Justin Trudeau announced Canada’s commitment to ban single-use plastic as of 2021. The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup’s litter data was cited by the federal government’s press release about the ban.

The initiative also aims to make a difference by inspiring individuals to make personal changes in their consumption habitats. By participating in a Shoreline Cleanup and seeing the impact that these items have on shoreline environments, volunteers may rethink the type of items they spend their dollars on.

These individual actions and behaviour changes are what Wakeling says are the “most important” to the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. “We’re really proud when individuals leave our cleanups with a change in their behaviours.”

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