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BC Coastal Cleanup MDRI Expedition 3: The nature of the debris

November 20, 2020

When we first arrived to work on Expedition 2 of the Marine Debris Removal Initiative (also referred to as the big BC Coastal Cleanup), many of us at first referred to it as a “garbage clean-up.” But Expedition Leader Kevin Smith pointed out to us that most of the stuff we were collecting would not be “garbage” – as in stuff that people had just thrown away. Debris really was the right word: debris washed away from businesses and boats and shorelines. (Photo of me, above, by Jeff Reynolds, Insta @jkr_photo)

This post is instalment 3 of 4 about my experience on the MDRI. Find the other ones here:

BC Coastal Cleanup MDRI Expedition 1: The project

BC Coastal Cleanup MDRI Expedition 2: The work

BC Coastal Cleanup MDRI Expedition 4: The heli-lifting!

As I mentioned in Post 2, all of the material was weighed going into the helicopter lift-bags. The reason was that the helicopter can only lift a maximum of 320 kg. We had to make sure that we didn’t make any one bag too heavy – and also, it would save time and money to know if some bags were so light (which they often were, with so much styrofoam and plastic) that the helicopter would be able to lift two or even three of them in a single run.

But a side-effect of this documentation of the material going into the bags was that we could record the nature of the debris.

At first, we worked as teams while loading the bags to estimate a rough percentage of the type of debris by class: plastic bottles, styrofoam, rope (general), fishing ropes and nets, fishing floats, etc.

It turned out that recording these estimates was really time-consuming, so we didn’t do that for the entire two weeks we were collecting, but we did it the first few days – so we still ended up with a pretty good idea of what the overall proportions were.

As long as a bag wasn’t overweight, we could tie stuff on the outside too. This worked especially well for stringing up strands of bulky fishing floats. (We didn’t even have to supply the rope – there was plenty around!) We would just chuck the floats down from the logs, then cart them over to site we’d chosen for our lift-bag.

We actually ended up transporting a lot of those floats back to Cascadia, rather than cart them to the garbage dump in Port Hardy (which is where all those helicopter lift bags were eventually going to end up).

That way, the MDRI could donate them for use to the various First Nations in whose territories we were working for use in their own fisheries. (Remember the 3 R’s – “re-use” is better than “recycle).

The ropes and nets, honestly, were horrible to deal with. They were abundant, they were everywhere, they were heavy, and they took hours to cut up.

It would often be a four- or five-person job, to unwind and chop up and remove each one.

Carrying them to the lift bags was tough, too – sometimes a single rope or net used up our full 320kg weight limit for a bag!

Some of the ropes and nets had been there for a long time, too – decades. You would see a little but of colour up above the driftwood logs – a bit of red or orange or turquoise – and then start following it up into the forest. And eventually you would find a whole giant net (or three) tangled up in decaying wood and overgrown by ferns and salal and other shrubbery.

We did, of course, also find lots of plastic drink bottles. By volume, they represented something like 10-20% of the total that we collected – which is a lot less than what I would have expected. A real lot of them were from elsewhere, mainly Asia. The bottle at the top left is Russian.

And we found a lot of just odd stuff too. Some shoes and sandals. A lot of just random foam – probably some of it insulation – as well as some very large items like different types of bins, broken boats and pieces of boats, and fridges and coolers. I think this syringe is the only one we found.

But by far, the bulk of what we found (like 70-80% of it) was debris discarded from the commercial fishing industry – and most of it from overseas.

We found a lot of crab floats like these, with ID tags on them indicating that they were from the USA: mainly Washington state and Oregon.

But most of the commercial fishing debris is from Asia.

Here’s a short video I put together : our Assistant Expedition Leader, Mike Jackson, explains from the deck of Cascadia where the debris came from, and what its impact is on the environment.

One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure, right? Not so sure about that – we found a lot more garbage than treasure.

But I was fortunate to be the only person on our ship on Expedition 2 to find a glass ball – while I was digging way up under the salal, pulling plastic drink bottles out from under the moss.

I also kept this cute little float (Japanese?) as a souvenir.

This year, the organization of the MDRI was a huge challenge, and the learning curve by the organizers (led by Kevin Smith of Maple Leaf Adventures, below) was steep. Nothing like this had ever been done before – so a lot of it was figuring out things as we went along, or taking notes of things we would do differently next time.

This photo was taken at the end of Expedition 2, right after the final lift-bag had been dropped by helicopter on to the barge. (We were three weeks in by then – allowed to take off our masks!)

It’s hard to tell the scale of things – but there are over 70 tonnes of debris here on this barge (between the two expeditions, we collected a total of 127 tonnes!) One thing that we all felt terrible about on this first MDRI was that nearly everything we collected was going to a landfill. I know that organizers are already working hard to plan for future MDRI expeditions with an eye for figuring out how we can be more efficient, and especially how we can separate as much debris either for re-use or recycling as possible.

Read on for my final post in this series, BC Coastal Cleanup MDRI Expedition 4: The heli-lifting! which explains (with some cool video!) how we got those 127 tonnes of debris collected on our BC Coastal Cleanup from the shorelines to the barge: the helicopter lifting operations,

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