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LETTER: Styrofoam pollution a threat to marine life

On the first warm days of the season, B.C. residents flock to their local beach and into the ocean – ready for their long-awaited summer. For a group of us on Lasqueti Island, there’s another reason that brings us out to the coastline in droves: our annual beach cleanup.

Each year, volunteers come out to the Lasqueti Shoreline Debris Initiative in growing numbers, to combat the rising tide of marine debris on our shores. In 2019, 70 volunteers removed two tonnes of garbage – two tractor-trailer loads – in just half a day.

The biggest culprit of this debris is Expanded Polystyrene (EPS), known by its brand name Styrofoam. Because of its buoyancy and low production cost, it’s widely used as a floatation material. This means it’s present in the ocean in large quantities, from dock and aquaculture floats to other marine infrastructure.

Because the foam is constantly exposed to harsh marine conditions, it disintegrates into millions of microplastic particles and becomes a major ocean pollutant. These toxic particles are often mistaken as food and ingested by fish and marine mammals, climbing the food chain and ultimately ending up in the seafood we consume.

If the volunteer hours were paid at minimum wage, the cost of these efforts exceeds $2,000 per kilometre. When you consider that there are 25,000 kilometres of coastal shorelines in B.C., these cleanups represent a hefty financial and social cost to coastal communities who are burdened with the responsibility. Meanwhile, polystyrene manufacturers and dock owners bear only the upfront costs of its production and installation.

Our governments are aware of the problem of polystyrene pollution. Now there’s an opportunity to act. B.C. is currently developing a coastal marine strategy with Indigenous nations to better protect coastal communities and habitats. Addressing the scourge of Styrofoam debris on our beaches absolutely needs to be part of this strategy. There’s no amount of volunteer beach cleanups that will address this issue — stronger regulations are needed to keep Styrofoam out of B.C. waters.

Peter Dietsch and Donald Gordon

Part-time Lasqueti Island residents