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Russell Wangersky: Ocean trash — our legacy to the world

Look on any beach you like pretty much anywhere around Atlantic Canada and what will you find? Trash. — Stock photo
Look on any beach you like pretty much anywhere around Atlantic Canada and what will you find? Trash. — Stock photo - Submitted

If you know just where to look on a shingle-stone beach in Adam’s Cove on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, if your timing is right and the tide and the waves co-operate, the small stones will part and reveal a huge engine block, buried deep in the beach.

Sometimes, it’s easy to find. Other times it disappears, a great rusty block of metal with still-shiny brass fittings. You can see the flat ends of the pistons, easily the diameter of a tennis ball, and you know that only a fraction of the great motor is exposed. The feeling is like seeing an iceberg and knowing that something like nine-tenths of the ice extends far, far deeper under the water than you are ever likely to see.

It at least stays in one place, that huge engine, anchored into the drifts of rounded stone — and unlike any of the other man-made detritus on the beach, it’s hard to call it trash, because it could be an ocean misadventure. I wish the same could be said for other remains of our wasteful culture.

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When the pavement ends on Union Street in Canso, N.S., you feel like you’ve come to one of the corners of the Earth. You’ve been on NS Route 16 for ages, first with the ocean on your left tight in to the highway, and then cutting inland near Half Island Cove past Hazel Hill and the now-torn-down but once-impressive stone buildings of the 1884 cable station. When the pavement ends on Union Street, you’re up against the sea once again, and if you park and climb down to the water, you can smell the ocean, look out at the handful of islands, and then visualize a circle five feet across and find 50 pieces of trash in the landwash, from water-bottle-sized to twist caps to plastic that’s been shredded by the sea to the occasional sole of a shoe.

It’s not necessarily from Canso.

It’s not necessarily from anywhere nearby.

But it’s all necessarily from people.

Now, I don’t put much stock in “days” — there are so many days set up to commemorate or identify or recognize causes or conditions or things. Tomorrow, for example, is International Sex Workers’ Day — next Saturday is both World Oceans Day and World Brain Tumour Day. As necessary as the recognition might be to those who are directly involved, they pass in a blur.

But I wonder if we might change the name of World Oceans Day to “Ocean Dump Day” this year, just to make a point.

Year after year, there are bird counts, where people spend a day scouting for species in their area, collating all that information, and making observations about annual changes in populations.

I wonder what it would be like if, on Ocean Dump Day, we all just took a small patch of beach and collected, inventoried and photographed the trash we found, whether it might be a sobering message for us all.

Not a beach cleanup, per se; those are fine and valuable, but the only people who see the length and breadth of waste are those who do the actual cleanup — for everyone else, it’s even more out of sight and out of mind than it was before the cleanup.

All I know is that I can make my way to the most distant and unapproachable parts of the Atlantic provinces and find tons of trash. And each piece, each and every piece, was thrown into the ocean by someone. Given the time it takes for trash to fully break down, it will be there for years after everyone who reads these words is dead and buried.

There’s a message in a plastic bottle for you.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 39 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

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