What do flip flops, tires, giant stuffed animals, and lighters all have in common?
They are all items being found and cleaned up from the shorelines of the Fraser River Estuary by the Wetlands Workforce Fraser River Clean-up crew.
The crew of five have been operating since September and have plans to clean over 53 kilometres of shoreline along the Fraser River Estuary.
The Clean-up Crew
Looking out from the dike at the Boundary Bay Wildlife Management Area, the 15 kilometres of eelgrass meadows and tidal marshes look pristine. Other than wrappers and other garbage that you may find along the trail, it may appear that the shoreline is free of debris. However, heading down off the dike through long grasses, pooling water, and years of washed ashore logs you can begin to spot items that do not belong among in the habitat. A child’s purple toy shovel lays by a log. A long cushion made for a boat seat is hidden within the long grasses. One, two, three tires found within a few kilometres of each other, all varied sizes, washed ashore from an unknown location.
The Fraser River Estuary Clean-up crew has been working tirelessly for the past several weeks to clean up the highly biodiverse marshes and wetlands of the Fraser Estuary. Their aim is to clean up as much debris as possible by December 10, 2021. As of the beginning of November, the crew has already visited three of their selected sites and has managed to remove over 4.7 tons (4,770kg) of debris.
Brianna Iwabuchi is the Field Coordinator for the Fraser Estuary Clean-up crew. For her, it is not just the amount of debris that is being collected that is surprising, but that it is being done with a small crew of people.
“I think one of the most amazing things is seeing what a crew of five people can do in such a brief time. I think it is really motivating for members of the public and other individuals that might want to do this. To see how much can get done with just five people.”
At times the garbage never seems to end with the tides delivering new debris from the ocean every day.
“It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” said Iwabuchi, but she and the team are not discouraged. “I personally was very surprised, and I know members of the crew and the Wetlands Workforce have been pleasantly surprised with the amount of debris we have been able to remove […] We are making a difference.”
Iwabuchi hopes seeing what can be accomplished with just a few people will encourage others to do what they can to clean up garbage and debris in their community. Being out in the marsh with high viz vests eight hours a day, five days a week is bound to receive attention from those walking by.
Adam Luke, the Field Crew Supervisor for the clean-up crew, said the response from the communities has been positive.
“A lot of people, especially with dike access here, they have been worried about why we have got access, but always after a quick conversation, they are always happy about what we have done. We have had support from the golfers across the dike, public bikers, hunters; all of them seem to be happy with our work. After a quick discussion they are excited that it is happening in their neighbourhood.”
Many community members have reached out, eager to volunteer their time and be part of the initiative to clean up the shorelines.
Plastic, Toxins, and the Carnival Rabbit
“We have found duck boats, filled canoes, life jackets, more flip flops than we can count, but never quite yet a matching pair. We found water bottles, kite surfboards, a variety of stuff that looks like it still has quite a bit of value left in it,” said Luke.
Styrofoam, ranging in size from a few centimetres to over 3 meters tall, is the most numerous item being found. Lighters, plastic bottles and plastic bags are also common findings. These plastic materials are crucial to remove from the shorelines as they can lead to toxic materials entering the waterways and in turn the fish and wildlife that depend on these habitats.
Protecting the important ecosystems of the Fraser Estuary from these potentially harmful materials was the main aim when the idea of the large-scale shoreline clean-up originated. Tobias Roehr, Fish Habitat Restoration and Education Coordinator for the B.C. Wildlife Federation, and Eric Balke, Coordinator of the Southcoast Conservation Land Management Program and Conservation Program Specialist with Ducks Unlimited Canada, developed the shoreline clean-up initiative and connected with the Wetlands Workforce project to bring it to fruition.
“Having the opportunity to remove potentially toxic materials, damaging materials is a really fantastic opportunity,” said Balke, “A lot of the garbage that washes up along the shorelines of these important ecosystems is plastic of some variety and a lot of these plastics when they are exposed to sunlight, UV radiation, they can break down and break into really small fragments, adding these microplastics into the environment. A lot of these microplastics can absorb heavy metals, toxic substances to their surface and then they are ingested by different species of fish and wildlife.”
By removing this debris from the Fraser Estuary, the crew is mitigating the impact these items have on the fish, wildlife, and the environment.
Aside from plastic waste, the crew has been collecting a number of odd treasures. Some favourite items include an especially large heavy tire, a message in a bottle that was filled with inspirational quotes and a large stuffed carnival rabbit.
“…a giant stuffed rabbit stabbed onto a pole in the middle of a marshy area, and it was ominously hanging. It was a giant fair rabbit. We called it Vlad the Impaled,” said April Kornitsky, Field Technician with the Fraser Estuary Clean-up crew.
For April, working on the clean-up crew has been one of her most rewarding jobs, “You can see all the difference you are making. It’s like a little scavenger hunt when you are picking everything up, which is really fun.”
Despite the weather, the long days, and the endless supply of waste to clean-up, April enjoys every minute, “A really big part of it is the people and getting to sit down at lunch together and getting to walk around together. It’s really the people that make the job, because otherwise you are just walking around in a beautiful place but doing nothing but picking up garbage.”
The momentum the shoreline clean-up crew has harnessed in just a few weeks is set to come to a close in December as funding ends and the Wetlands Workforce project wraps up.
“Unfortunately, there isn’t always enough resources to do these kinds of shoreline clean-ups,” said Balke. “Quite often you have all manner of garbage and waste that drifts in on the tides and starts to accumulate and some of this garbage is nasty stuff, like Styrofoam that breaks down into small pieces and can be entered into the food web by different kinds of organisms eating it or certain toxins adhering to the surface. So, having this opportunity to clean up this garbage that would otherwise just remain for years, if not decades, is a fantastic opportunity.”
Continued funding for projects like the Wetlands Workforce that aim to provide maintenance to crucial habitats, could allow for more frequent and longer-term shoreline clean-ups.
Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Rejuvenate
Garage door lubricant, a Lego figure, toilet seat cover, golf club, homemade boat, old wooden crib, flip flops. All these items were found and cleaned up, but these items are not just going to be brought to the landfill. They are being recycled.
“We are not just taking the debris out of the shoreline and returning it to a landfill, we’re returning it to Revolution Resource Recovery which will sort through the debris we’ve placed in the bin. So, the stuff we are taking off the shoreline is being repurposed and given a new life and it is important to note that we are not just taking it from one place and putting it into another. We’re trying to reuse it and not let it go back into the water and the animals,” Iwabuchi said.
Iwabuchi also notes the support from Mad Props Marine in helping shuttle the crew and debris from the islets in the Fraser and Two Guys Disposal who have delivered and picked up the large disposal bins for the crew.
Overall, the support and enthusiasm around the shoreline clean-up has been positive and encouraging. Iwabuchi hopes that this work will even support positive mental health for those that recreate along these shorelines.
“With COVID being a thing right now and everybody seeking some sanity in the world, going outside is just a great way to reconnect with everything. I think seeing trash when you walk along the trails is something that kind of adds a little bit of a shadow over getting out. So having our crews pick up debris from that front is really good. It encourages positive mental health when you are out in the field and just the outreach, getting people of the public witnessing what our crew is doing, helps people realize that there might be an issue with debris out in the field.”
If five people can clean up over 4.77 tons of debris in just a manner of weeks, imagine what could be achieved with continued, longer-term funding for shoreline clean-ups. Less debris along our shorelines, fewer plastics in our waterways, and the knowledge that these habitats do not just look pristine, they are pristine.