Once cheery beach chairs, now weather-tattered relics from a summer that seems far too long ago, were one of the many pieces of junk lugged up the hundreds of steps to Marine Drive from Wreck Beach Saturday.
Volunteers, mostly in jeans, warm jackets and practical gloves, picked their way through the heavy and wet sand at Vancouver’s clothing optional beach Saturday morning and afternoon, adding their finds to garbage bags or white buckets.
Everything was dumped out on a tarp at the trail head where the Surfrider Foundation had set up its blue tent under which large pieces of garbage (metal piping, thick coils of rope, rusted barbecue parts) were measured and every single cigarette butt found in the sand and sea counted.
Volunteers picked up 5,000 butts on Wreck Beach during one of their monthly cleanups last summer. Astonishingly, it was done in a short amount of time in a designated area (cleanups are done in a specific area so data entry parameters remain consistent). Even more astonishing is that there is a designated smoking area on a ruggedly beautiful beach with a container for butts nailed to a post with the hope that people use it, rather than treat the sandy expanse as one, giant ashtray.
Matthew Unger moved to Vancouver four years ago from his family farm located in Greenland, Man. He had visited Vancouver before and decided he had to live here.
“You can stand in one spot and see beautiful coastal mountains, turn around and see the ocean,” he said, the excitement in his voice betraying the fact the novelty has not yet worn off.
Unger is now the chair of the 10-year-old Vancouver chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, an international non-profit group that dedicates itself to, in its words, “protecting oceans, waves and beaches since 1984.” It started in Malibu, Calif. when a group of surfers protested, and succeeded in stopping, coastal development at their local surf break at Malibu Point.
The group’s Vancouver chapter recently decided to stop beach cleanups in other areas of the Lower Mainland, such as White Rock and West Vancouver’s Lighthouse Point, in favour of focusing on city beaches. Part of that reasoning is the goal to educate people on the environmental hazards of garbage, as well as drilling home one of their campaign slogans — “Protect Where You Play.”
And, sadly, the once-a-month beach cleanups in Vancouver remind volunteers that they have some work ahead of them.
Unger remembered the last time he was on cleanup duty at Wreck Beach. “You do your sweep, you turn around, and you look at your footsteps and cigarette butts are poking up in the sand from where you just walked,” he said. “On any Vancouver beach, cigarettes, by far, account for most of the trash.”
During last month’s English Bay cleanup, 22 hypodermic needles were found on the beach. An earlier cleanup in Coal Harbour rescued a coffee maker, toaster oven and a microwave from the water. Coal Harbour also gets bonus points for the oddest catch when volunteers found three Harlequin romance novels, a pair of stiletto boots and a couple packages of condoms all under a tree.
Surfrider Vancouver also has plans beyond cleanups, such as encouraging the city’s beach concession stands to use compostable food containers and cutlery, educating the public about water quality, and the horrendous damage plastics can cause. Anybody is welcome to volunteer in any capacity, said Unger, pointing out that it’s a great way to meet fellow ocean-lovers whether it’s paddle-boarders, rowers, wind-surfers or skim-boarders.
Scuba divers also make up some of the group’s numbers, and they’re especially important as they find the hidden garbage and hazards such as loose boat anchors and ghost crab traps (a lost trap still traps).
Vancouver is indeed a beautiful city, but it needs more than the efforts of a small group to stay that way, Unger said.
“Appreciate it, right?”