Beating back plastic together Local undergrad spearheads community effort to understand microplastics at Vancouver’s beaches

Volunteers use a sieve to parse sand samples, part of a research effort led by SFU environmental science student Helen Wong. | Photo by Anna Hippmann

Helen Wong has found a way to blend community advocacy with greater environmental understanding. The environmental science student at Simon Fraser University (SFU) brought in over 20 volunteers to aid her undergraduate thesis project, which looks to learn more about the impact and extent of microplastics on Vancouver’s coasts.

After winning a $1500 Ocean Actions Grant for youth-led environmental initiatives, Wong’s student volunteers joined her rainy-day effort to collect sand samples for lab analysis. After being blown away by the turnout, Wong hopes the effort will inspire environmental action beyond even her own project at SFU.

“It was pouring rain so I could not have picked [a worse] day,” says Wong. “It was the last Saturday of January and I was like, ‘There’s going to be 2 people who come and I don’t fault them.’ I myself would not want to go out in the rain. But 25 people came! I was just like, ‘wow.’”

Getting the dirt on Vancouver’s sand

Wong grew curious about microplastics after taking a course with her current thesis supervisor Anna Hippmann. While she didn’t know much about the issue beforehand, she says the “eye-opening” course led her to wonder how the material might be affecting Vancouver’s coast due to the plastic’s non-biodegradable properties.

“There are islands of plastic floating in the ocean, and with Vancouver being literally by the ocean it hits so close to home,” says Wong. “I was curious since plastic doesn’t break down or biodegrade. It just gets smaller and smaller. All the plastic that’s been made is probably still here on the planet somewhere, and I [wondered if there was] any in Vancouver.”

SFU environmental science student Helen Wong recently led a sand sample collection effort to better understand microplastics at Vancouver’s beaches. | Photo by Ella Choi

For her project, Wong traveled to five different beaches in Vancouver – Kitsilano Beach, Jericho Beach, Hadden Park, Sunset Beach and Barnet Marine Park –
five times each, in addition to the 25-person collection effort at Kitsilano Beach. The laborious process involved shoveling scoops of sand into a sieve and filtering it into a bucket. The pieces that float on top of the sieve are probable microplastics, so she brings those samples to a lab for further investigation.

“If it’s squishy, it’s most likely microplastic. If it starts to crumble, it’s probably not,” says Wong. “So we collect them in vials and I look at these under a microscope with a camera attached. It will take a picture and tell me properties such as color, size and diameter.”

Practical issues such as affordability are also a key factor in the research process, with Wong only being able to send 55 samples in total, due to grant limitations, to a lab for FTIR, or Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy, a technique that helps her to analyze whether samples are truly microplastics or not.

But while that process might be time-consuming, Wong hopes that participants gained insight into the fieldwork process and feel more motivated to enact change and better understand the plastics’ environmental impact.

“They got to dig, they got to sort through everything and clean the samples. When you are in class or just chilling looking through all this different media, there is a disconnect with what’s really out there,” she says. “Events like this not only expose people to what fieldwork is like, but they get to do something cool outside.”

And while this kind of work can engender a sense of climate anxiety – the propensity to feel pessimistic about the future of the world’s worsening climate systems – Wong resists such feelings by remaining hopeful that tiny improvements can lead to something greater. Seeing so many others willing to help out surely doesn’t hurt either.

“[Climate anxiety] is not something that only young people feel, but literally anyone who cares about the environment… Policies are in place and are very important, but they also take a lot of time to implement, you won’t be able to see [the results] right away,” says Wong. “Having conversations, talking about it, learning what it all means and breaking it down is very helpful.”