A Garbage Patch To Call Our Own

In late September, I took part in the International Coastal Cleanup, a global effort to clean the world’s beaches and coastlines of litter and manageable waste.

A view from Budapest Park in Toronto

Landlocked? No problem. Though headed by a central body, the Canadian coordination of the event was handled by the more inclusively named Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. My team, comprised of colleagues and their families, had a grand ol’ time cleaning the west end of Budapest Park on the shoreline of Lake Ontario.

While submitting the results from our crew before the mid-October deadline, a few interesting themes stood out in terms of what we found.

We gathered a wide assortment of items, from balloons to clothing to batteries, but the most dubiously popular objects were straws, bottle caps and those little white plastic tips from cigarelloes. Frankly, I had no idea cigarelloes were so popular. My friends and I only smoked them when we were teenagers.

(Shh…please don’t tell my dad…)

Other than these bits of litter partially buried in the Lake Ontario sand, the most important items that were found were the ones we could not directly identify or count. Like the tiny fragments of shells by the ocean, the beach was peppered with scraps of plastic of all sizes, right down to the near indistinguishable.

As fearless leader of my litter collection crew, I deemed these plastic scraps the most significant of our findings since they hold some unsettling similarities with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a concentrated area of pollution that covers thousands of square kilometres in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Formed by the rotating currents of the Pacific gyre, larger items in the Patch (as the cool kids call it) can be found, but the most significant impact is made by the plastics as the break down in the water. Eventually degrading to a microscopic scale, the plastics enter the food chain at all levels and spread all kinds of toxins and scary acronyms like BPA and PCBs. OMG!

While I recognize that the water in Lake Ontario is completely different to that of the Pacific Ocean, it nevertheless drives home the point (in my case, at least) of how plastics behave when introduced to our water system and how difficult they would be to clean up after they begin to break down in the water.

Events such as this one typically do not muster a significant environmental impact in terms of actual litter being collected, but if it can highlight some of the larger issues in water pollutants and how we look at waste disposal, then I say it was a job well done.

Plus it’s always good to step outside and get one’s hands dirty every so often, since trying to save the world from the confines of a cubicle doesn’t always make one feel like they’re making an impact either.

At the end of the day, you need not jump on an ocean liner to see firsthand how tiny pieces of plastic can cause a larger problem. Just jump on the street car and visit the lakeshore of Toronto.

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About Daniel Caunter

Who is Daniel Caunter? Daniel is a series of contrasts – Environmentalist MBA, anglo Montrealer, landlocked surfer, serious about fun, and creatively practical. He has lofty ideals, but is focused on finding veritable solutions that will work in reality. He is a work in progress, building a career in environmental business with a focus on stakeholder engagement, project management and corporate communications. Daniel can be reached via Twitter (@danielcaunter), or by commenting here on this site. If you’d like a real-time update on this work in progress, he may even be persuaded to come out for a pint or a cuppa. (Please note: the views expressed in Daniel’s posts are his personally - though sometimes satirical - and are not necessarily those of his employer or other affiliations...so don’t be silly.)
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One Response to A Garbage Patch To Call Our Own

  1. “And so our obliviousness lets us slip into a grand self-deception that the small and large decisions in our material lives are of no great consequence.” Daniel Goleman wrote that in his book Ecological Intelligence.

    In this piece , you have very nicely illustrated how millions of tiny decisions lead to piles of plastic, toxic waste and eventually thousand square kilometer gyres in the middle of the ocean (there are actually several of them in oceans around the world). By extension these actions also lead to the increased cancer rates that we see among adults and children around the world. What starts out as small, seemingly inconsequential actions loop back to us with greater implications for our lives that we can possibly imagine.

    The next time we feel that we cannot make a difference in what may seem like a “global problem” with only “global solutions”, remember the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

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