Two UVic librarians volunteering for Surfrider are leading the battle against industrial plastic on our beaches.
DANIEL BRENDLE-MOCZUK takes a small jar from his office shelf and shakes it, his eyebrows knitting together. “This is from one site, one collection, ten litres of sand.” He hands me the 192 millilitres of small plastic pellets, about the size and shape of a Baby Aspirin. They are various colours of white, beige, pale yellow, and grey. They darken as they absorb contaminants from the ocean, he tells me.
Brendle-Moczuk’s colleague, David Boudinot, walked into his office with a jar of the pellets in 2016. “I started going to monthly beach cleanups at Willows Beach,” Boudinot tells me. A foot down, the sand was saturated. “I didn’t know what they were.”
The beach clean-up Boudinot attended was organized by Surfrider, an international organization started by surfers to clean up the places they love. Brendle-Moczuk soon joined in. Both are University of Victoria librarians, and their investigation into the pellets—called “nurdles,” or pre-consumer plastic pellets—have led them to surprising places. Brendle-Moczuk’s daughter calls him and Boudinot “Nurdle Man 1 and 2.” She’s picked up on their dedication to their work. Together, they are helping to illuminate an unfolding environmental disaster occurring quietly on southeast-facing beaches all over the region.
Daniel Brendle-Moczuk holds nurdles found on the shore of the Fraser River near an Annacis Island facility that uses nurdles
Pre-consumer plastic pellets are just that—plastic which has been produced by a refinery, but not yet made into the plastic bags, buckets, storage containers, and packaging we see in stores. The pellets are small and oval to facilitate easy transportation (imagine trying to ship, then melt, a giant plastic cube). Plastic consumer products are produced all over the world, including just across the strait, in Port Coquitlam, North Burnaby, and Annacis Island, which lies between Richmond and Surrey. Brendle-Moczuk and Boudinot couldn’t figure out how the plastic pellets were arriving to Inside Passage waters on the West Coast. At first, they looked to Asia. But there’s a commonality to the locations on the mainland: the Fraser River.
Brendle-Moczuk took a trip to see his in-laws and stopped by Annacis Island on his way. With a ballcap pulled down low, he shot photos of several plastics manufacturers’ facilities grounds. Though they declined to give me company names, Google map lists Plasticon Plastics, ibox Packaging, Merlin Plastics Supply, and Plasti-Fab Delta as operating facilities on the island. Brendle-Moczuk’s photos show train tracks (where the pellets are unloaded into trucks), yards (where pellets are shifted from truck to facility) and parking lots littered with plastic pellets. At the edges of these stretches of sidewalk are storm drains—which empty into the Fraser River.
When Boudinot and Brendle-Moczuk took their research to the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA), they denied responsibility: the pellets, CPIA said, came from Asia. But intertidal movement wouldn’t push plastic pellets that far upriver, and certainly not into the canals of the island, or all the way into the storm drains. “This is an industrial solidified oil spill that’s been happening for decades,” says Boudinot, “and no one is doing anything about it.”
David Boudinot holds a nurdle sample retrieved from a West Coast beach
Since 2016, Boudinot and Brendle-Moczuk have spent countless hours researching the spills, the types of plastic the pellets are made from (both high- and low-density PolyEthylene and Polypropylene), and monitoring spill sites. Brendle-Moczuk has watched pellets disappear from parking lots after staff pressure-washed them down the drains. Every time he goes to Vancouver, he does research on the sites he’s been keeping track of.
Boudinot spends hours each month combing beaches and sifting sand to get an idea of pellet concentration. Last fall, he spent four hours walking the beach at Goose Spit in Courtney. “This is what we do, every time we go somewhere,” he says.
They look for southeast-facing beaches without a hard edge (like a sea wall or rock face) where pellets tend to gather. Esquimalt Lagoon is a prime location. Cadboro Bay, Willows Beach, any southeast facing beaches on the Gulf Islands. Strong winter storms come from this direction, pushing the pellets onto the beaches. They are keeping a map of areas where pellets have been found, which includes locations all over Vancouver Island, the mainland, Sunshine Coast, and the San Juan Islands.
It’s estimated that more than 8 million tonnes of plastic are dumped into oceans every year. Over 90 percent of sea birds have plastic in their stomachs. Photos from Midway Island, in the South Pacific, show wildlife that has succumbed to plastic ingestion, literally starving albatrosses to death. By 2050, it’s expected there will be more plastic than fish in the Earth’s oceans. Much of this comes from post-consumer plastic (plastic which has been made into a bottle or disposable food packaging, for example) but pre-consumer plastic pellets are just as dangerous—not to mention a totally unnecessary and preventable form of pollution.
Plastic pellets absorb hydrophobic pollutants in water, becoming more contaminated the longer they float. These pellets have been found in 22 percent of marine fish, according to a 2016 Marine Pollution Bulletin study. Ingestion of plastics can induce hepatic stress, intra-epithelial cysts, affect blood calcium levels, and cause endocrine disruptions in animals. Studies on humans wouldn’t be ethical to do, but many extrapolate the effect on animals to include humans. Bisphenol-A, one compound in plastics, has been found to increase anorexia nervosa, disrupt the endocrine system, and impact fetal development in humans. Recently, its replacement, Bisphenol-S, has been found to be just as (if not more) dangerous.
This fall, Boudinot and Brendle-Moczuk made a video, in collaboration with Surfrider, on plastic pellet spills in the Fraser River. Along with scenic shots of the West Coast, the video shows students from the 2019 Geography Sustainability Field School, who found hundreds of nurdles in just an hour of sifting. Boudinot and Brendle-Moczuk are also working with law professor Calvin Sandborn to figure out how to best publicize the issue, since the plastics industry is notorious for fighting back against bad press (remember their challenge of Victoria’s plastic bag ban?). They’ve also enlisted the help of UVic’s chemistry students to analyze the pellets, and biology students to research the effects of plastic in fish. Geography cartographer Ken Josephson helped them put together their map.
The Canadian Plastics Industry Association promotes Operation Clean Sweep, an international best practices program designed to prevent plastic pellet contamination in waterways and oceans. But participation is voluntary. The Ministry of Environment states that discharge of pollution to the environment is prohibited under the Environment Management Act. But it has not responded to Boudinot and Brendle-Moczuk’s findings, other than to say it will be “looking into these concerns and determining appropriate next steps.”
Last Fall, Boudinot and Brendle-Moczuk sent their Surfrider video to the media. They held a media conference on Annacis Island in October. CBC and Global News turned up. Boudinot and Brendle-Moczuk recommended that industries should be required to install storm drain covers to collect pellets and prevent them from entering waterways. When Brendle-Moczuk returned to Annacis Island later that fall, he noticed that many of the work sites he had previously documented were suddenly cleaner. Some storm drains had felt filters installed (albeit not all correctly). But he and Boudinot worry this is a temporary measure, designed to ease tensions until media and public attention turns to the next story. “We’re calling on the Ministry of Environment and the Province of BC to investigate these spills and monitor them, and make sure they don’t happen in the first place,” says Boudinot.
Their fears were confirmed last month. The heavy rains of late January and early February sent thousands of pellets into Annacis Island’s Audley Channel. According to Surfrider, the piles of pellets were up to three centimetres deep.
They also want the public to be aware of the insidious nature of plastics production. “The oil industry is pivoting away from oil and gas for cars, and building plastic manufacturing plants instead.”
Despite recent moves to reduce single-use plastics, the material is used everywhere. Brendle-Moczuk and Boudinot would like to see pellets labelled as an industrial pollutant. They encourage the public to call RAPP (Report all Poachers and Polluters) if they see a spill. They plan to liaise with First Nations and make another video about the spills happening in their traditional territories. And Boudinot has a simple solution for what to do when pellets escape. “When a spill happens, clean it up!”
Residents can call RAPP to report pellet spills or the presence of pellets on beaches or waterways at 1-877-952-7277.
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast. She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.