The billions of pieces of plastic floating in ocean gyres begin their watery journeys in ditches and creeks in almost every location inhabited by people. Many are tossed into tributaries in the centre of continents, far upstream from any ocean, including the small watershed where I live.
The neighbouring coastal marshes where I spend many hours have much in common but there’s an important difference: they belong to separate “garbagesheds”.
There should be no need for such an ugly word, but as water moves through watersheds in our disposable civilization, that water gathers a lot of garbage and deposits it, at least temporarily, in catch points such as marshes.
Westside Marsh is part of the tiny (5.4 km2) Westside Creek watershed, which includes only a small amount of residential or commercial development – and thus this garbageshed1 collects relatively little garbage.
Bowmanville Marsh, by contrast, belongs to a watershed with thirty times as much area, including nearly all of the “developed” areas of the town of Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada. Throughout this marsh, wherever water can sometimes flow and vegetation can filter that flow, there is garbage.
The plastic garbage may or may not be the worst of it, but since it tends to stay on the surface it is the most visible.
In the Bowmanville/Soper Creek garbageshed which drains through this marsh, the ditches and brooks carry plastic bottles toward Lake Ontario, and log jams on the creeks often catch hundreds of pieces. Flimsy and ubiquitous mass-market water bottles make up by far the biggest share.
It only takes one good downpour to jostle some of the bottles out of this trap. Some pieces move quickly downstream and into Lake Ontario, while other pieces float a short distance into flooded woods or into the reeds where they stay for weeks, months or years.
As a nature lover I usually go into the marsh to marvel at all the life and beauty that remains here, and that beauty is the usual focus of my photography. At the same time, it’s hard not to be aware, and often to be sickened and appalled, by the presence of plastic waste in every nook and cranny of the marsh.
There once was a time when people didn’t need to have a drink in their hand, their pack or their purse at all times, every day, everywhere they go. Obsessive fear of dehydration generally guided only those making long journeys across inhospitable drylands.
There once was a day when people could routinely spare the time to sit down and drink hot beverages from open cups which afforded them the aroma of fresh coffee.
But advertising factories relentlessly manufactured new needs, and materials wizards cooked up mountains of packaging that was cheap enough to throw away after one use.
Were it not for this seemingly never-ending stream of garbage, there would be no need for “adopt-a-roadway” clean-up campaigns by civically-minded citizens – and in the long run, we’d be much better off taxing single-use plastics out of existence rather than trying to pick them out of grasslands, forests, marshes, creeks, lakes and oceans.
But in the meantime, it is far easier to pick up trash bottles from easily accessible roadside ditches than it is to wade into creeks, pick through logjams, or push canoes through stands of reeds trying to grab plastic detritus piece by piece.
Every bit of trash picked up from a ditch is one less piece making its way downstream.
But when high water lifts long-trapped bottles out of the marsh and into Lake Ontario, our plastic avatars move into a far wider garbageshed – perhaps, one day, joining a great garbage gyre in the ocean.2
Photo at top of page: Hydration with Shine (larger view here)
1When this word popped into mind I suspected that others must have thought of it too. But my internet search turned up just one similar usage of “garbageshed”, by theologian and ethicist Malinda Elizabeth Berry.
2According to Wikipedia, the North Atlantic garbage patch “is estimated to be hundreds of kilometers across in size, with a density of over 200,000 pieces of debris per square kilometer.” Researchers from The Ocean Cleanup project claimed that the Great Pacific garbage patch “covers 1.6 million square kilometers. … An estimated 80,000 metric tons of plastic inhabit the patch, totaling 1.8 trillion pieces.”