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Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is the most common floatation material used in Canadian marine environments.


Unfortunately, this cheap and lightweight material easily erodes and is currently polluting the Salish Sea. 

It has costly implications for local marine ecosystems and coastal communities.

Boatfull of styrofoam blocks and bags of trash that has been collected from the beach


Floatation devices have been identified as the leading cause of expanded polystyrene pollution on BC’s coasts. This includes docks, rafts, floats, aquaculture amenities, and other forms of marine infrastructure.

Expanded polystyrene in these floatation structures takes the form of large billets and blocks that are extremely vulnerable to fragmentation, especially when placed in marine environments without a hard plastic casing.


Marine plastic pollution is an ever-increasing problem with an estimated 5 to 13 million metric tons of plastic being released into the ocean from coastal cities each year (Jambeck et al., 2015).


Polystyrene is one of the most common types of plastic used by manufacturers. Unfortunately, it easily breaks down into small beads as it degrades over time. There is currently no technology in place to “vacuum” the tiny beads off the beach and removing these particles manually is near impossible. This is troubling as polystyrene foam is the “most common form of garbage found during the Great Canadian Shoreline clean-ups” (Gov. of BC, 2020).

When left stranded in the marine environment, polystyrene may be ingested by marine mammals, birds, and fish, etc. There is evidence that suggests marine organisms ingesting polystyrene may be subject to neurotoxic effects, decreased reproductivity, and decreased survival at a species level (Gamardella et al., 2017; Cole et al., 2015; Galloway et al., 2017).


The implications for marine polystyrene litter may also be especially significant to coastal communities relying heavily on seafood consumption. Microplastics have been found in a number of commercially important fish around the world (Barboza et al., 2018). Chronic exposure to styrene, a component of polystyrene, has been associated with negative implications for human health. It has been linked to carcinogenic (cancer-causing) properties and genotoxicity (cell mutation), as well as interference with hormonal systems (Vodicka et al., 2006; Lithner et al., 2011).


Polystyrene pollution may have costly implications for industries relying on local ecosystems. For example, microplastics are a growing concern among fisheries scientists, given the potential ingestion of microplastics by fish and transfer to human beings. Additionally, polluted beaches can deter tourism affecting the economies of coastal towns. 
As a result, many communities have taken it upon themselves to clean up the pollution. Find out how much cleanups cost Lasqueti residents each year here.
Other conflicts arise between concerned local community members and aquaculture operators who rely heavily on expanded polystyrene floats and are often blamed for the polystyrene pollution.
Infographic. Title: The cost of using Styrofoam for flotation. Body: Fragmanting expanded polystyrene flotations can potentially lead to implications for marine species, threats to fishing and tourism industries, contaminated food for hman being and conflict among stakeholders. Recycling and disposing of expanded polystyrene is costly. Recycling can cost 6 times more than sending to landfill. Landfiells may refuse. Cleanups cost volunteers and organizations an estimated 2 thousand per kilometer. With over 25,000 km of shoreline in BC, that is a lot of money. it's time to stop expanded polystyrene use at sea.


One of the biggest challenges involved with reducing polystyrene pollution is the lack of recycling facilities (Fauna & Flora International, 2020). In Canada, only ~9% of all plastic waste is recycled (CCME, 2020). This is, in part, due to a shortage of recycling facilities.


Many companies involved with polystyrene have their own internal recycling programs for their products. However, these programs are typically only extended to their existing customer base.

In many cases, polystyrene cannot be recycled. When polystyrene washes up on shore, it is typically degraded in quality. For example, polystyrene used in aquaculture is often polluted with seaweed and barnacles, and cannot be reused or recycled (Gov. of BC, 2020). 


The problem of polystyrene pollution is further exacerbated by the fact that many landfills do not accept the material (Gov. of BC, 2020). 


Barboza, L. G. A., et al. (2018). Marine microplastic debris: An emerging issue for food security, food safety and human health. Marine pollution bulletin, 133, 336-348.

CCME (Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment). (2020). Canada-Wide Action Plan on Zero Plastic Waste (pp. 1-10, Rep. No. 1606). Canada: CCME.

Cole, M., et al. (2015). The Impact of Polystyrene Microplastics on Feeding, Function and Fecundity in the Marine Copepod Calanus helgolandicus. Environmental Science & Technology, 49(2), 1130–1137. 

Galloway, T. S., et al. (2017). Interactions of microplastic debris throughout the marine ecosystem. Nature ecology & evolution, 1(5), 1-8.

Gambardella, C., et al. (2017). Effects of polystyrene microbeads in marine planktonic crustaceans. Ecotoxicology and environmental safety, 145, 250-257.

Government of BC. (2020). What We Heard on Marine Debris in B.C. (pp. 1-16, Rep.). British Columbia, Canada.

Government of Canada: Canadian Environmental Protection Act: Priority Substance List. (Viewed on March 14, 2021).

Government of Canada. (2020). Canada one-step closer to zero plastic waste by 2030: NewsRelease. Retrieved from

Jambeck, J.R., Geyer, R., Wilcox, C., Siegler, T.R., Perryman, M, Andrady, A. et al. (2015). Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean, Science, 347(6223), pp.768-771.

Lithner, D. et al. (2011). Environmental and health hazard ranking and assessment of plastic polymers based on chemical composition. Science of the Total Environment, 409(18), 3309-3324. 

Vodicka, P., et al. (2006). Styrene metabolism, genotoxicity, and potential carcinogenicity. Drug metabolism reviews, 38(4), 805-853.

All photos from Lasqueti Island residents and Denman Marine Stewards

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