PPE litter to join the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup’s Dirty Dozen

PPE litter on the shorline Photo by Kristini/Shutterstock

This year, as you take to your favourite Canadian beaches and lakes, you might notice a new kind of litter washing ashore. Blue hospital masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) join the growing mass of marine litter cluttering shores across the country. For the first time in Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup’s history, volunteers noticed so much PPE litter that it will join its “Dirty Dozen List” in next year’s annual report.

Every year, volunteers and local conservationists across Canada participate in a series of cleanups called the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. The initiative, led by Ocean Wise and World Wildlife Fund Canada, encourages Canadians to take action and help clean up their communities’ shores.  The common goal: “Keeping garbage and plastic out of freshwater that runs into the ocean.”

“Canadians, we, care about the waters in our backyard,” says Elizabeth Hendriks, vice president of restoration and regeneration at WWF Canada. “We are really focussed on actions individuals and groups can play in restoring shoreline health.”

Every year, the volunteers count and rank the most commonly littered items across the country. In 2020, cigarette butts topped the list followed by tiny plastics and foam, and food wrappers. The list also included plastic bottles and bags, straws and coffee cups, among other packaging waste.

The proportion of single-use food and beverage packaging rose from 15 per cent in 2019 to 27 per cent in 2020. The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup’s belief is that the jump could be related to the pandemic and the spike in take-out dining. Another 27 per cent of litter in 2020 was tiny trash—think micro-plastics and other fragments of litter.

The organization shares the data with researchers, governments, and the public to raise awareness and inform evidence-based solutions.

“Litter data collected by the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup was shared with the Government of Canada and used to inform this decision in their Science Assessment of Plastic Pollution,” they reported. The items on the government’s plastic ban included many of the Shoreline Cleanup’s Dirty Dozen.

Covid-19 has affected Canadian shorelines in more ways than one. Due to nationwide stay-at-home orders, quarantines, and social distancing efforts, cleanups were cancelled last spring. The total number of cleanups across Canada fell nearly 70 per cent in 2020, down to 929 from 3,012 in 2019. Otherwise, the number of cleanups hosted have been steadily increasing since the first cleanup in 2004.

In 2020, cleanups looked a little different, as volunteers adapted to Covid-safe measures. The Cleanup went digital and led online events and virtual cleanups. Despite the challenges they faced, 2020’s cleanups collected more than 41,000 kilos of litter from Canadian shores.

Cleanups across Canada are made possible thanks to active citizens who volunteer as Site Coordinators to lead local events and the municipalities who lend their support and guidance for cleaner shorelines.

Cottagers are particularly encouraged to get involved.

“It really matters what you do on your land,” Hendriks, a cottage owner, says. “Cottagers are really well-placed to play that important role in restoration and monitoring,” she adds.

Cleanups are a start, “but there’s also restoring your shorelines by promoting the growth of native species to help bring back wildlife and protect the freshwater.” This is called a ‘living shoreline.’

It is equally important to “recognize that what we do on land impacts our marine and freshwater ecosystems,” says Hendricks.

“You bought your cottage because you enjoy your waterfront and there are ways we can manage our properties to ensure more natural and restored habitat and freshwater.” For example, community-based water monitoring, which helps us keep an eye on how our lakes are doing.

Want to join a clean-up? Find one near you or lead a cleanup in your area. The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup coordinates cleanups with schools, youth groups, and workplaces. Just make sure you follow local health guidelines.

Prevention is better than clean-up. So, how can you prevent litter from washing up on shores in your community? OceanWise encourages participating in Plastic Free July next month or ditching the Dirty Dozen. Every action counts in keeping Canadian shores clean.

“There’s always things to clean up,” Hendriks says, “so let’s get out there.”

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