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Each year, citizen science data collected by Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup reveal the “Dirty Dozen,” a list of the most-found litter across Canada.

This year, it was found that the proportion of litter from single-use food and beverage packaging increased by more than 10 per cent from 2019 to 2020. The change may be one of the many implications of COVID-19, including more people ordering restaurant takeaway and consuming more individually packaged foods. 

With the extra challenges presented by the pandemic, we wanted to share some suggestions of actions you can take to prevent the Dirty Dozen from appearing on our shorelines, with a focus on the reduction of single-use food and beverage items. The best way to keep shorelines clean, is to prevent litter from getting there in the first place.

So here we go: Let’s “ditch” our use of the Dirty Dozen.

  1. Cigarette butts – 83,693

The problem: Cigarettes can leach toxic chemicals, such as lead and arsenic, into the environment, contaminating water and harming animals.

Prevention: Put them out and put them in the garbage can, never on the ground. Or ship them to TerraCycle.

2. Tiny Plastic or Foam – 77,705

The problem: Pieces of plastic and foam break up into smaller fragments known as microplastics. These tiny pieces of litter are then eaten by zooplankton (the smallest animals in the food chain) and may even be transferred up the food chain.

Prevention: Reduce your overall use of plastics and foam. Choose a head of lettuce rather than plastic wrapped lettuce, choose a shampoo bar rather than shampoo in a bottle, and support restaurants that use reusable or recyclable containers. If they exist in your community, support businesses that let you refill, whether its products for your kitchen, your bathroom or even your morning coffee. Don’t let your efforts go to waste, be sure to sort your waste properly- see instructions for your municipality!

3. Food Wrappers – 21,800

The problem: Unfortunately, a lot of snacks and food sold in grocery stores come in plastic and foil packaging. Light packaging can easily get blown or washed out of waste systems, entering waterways through run off and inland rivers. 

Prevention: Make your own snacks. Buy in bulk, save money, and reduce wrappers on our shorelines. Chose treats that come in reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging. Bring your own bags to fill up on bulk items!

4. Paper – 17,534

The problem: When paper becomes litter, it does not get recycled into a new paper product and ink printed on everyday paper items can be harmful to flora and fauna.

Prevention: Go digital and avoid printing unless you need to! Donate or sell used books, and sort and recycle paper following your municipality’s instructions.

5. Bottle Caps – 13,285

The problem: Bottle caps tend to make their way into our waterways and shorelines, where they never really disappear. Marine mammals, fish and birds see bottle caps as food, leading to fatal repercussions, if ingested.

Prevention: Drink out of a reusable bottle and make sure to properly recycle your bottle caps.

6. Beverage Cans – 10,631

The problem: Beverage cans are often left behind following coastal recreation like picnics, concerts, and swimming. 

Prevention: Did you know that, if recycled, the aluminum in beverage cans can be melted down and reused? Recyclable in most municipalities, please sort your recycling as directed by your municipality and remember the “leave no trace” principles when using public areas. 

7. Plastic Bottles – 8,216

The problem: Although convenient, discarded plastic bottles eventually break into smaller pieces that can be ingested by animals and enter the food chain. Each bottle can take up to 1,000 years to decompose, leaking harmful chemicals into our environment along the way.

Prevention: Reusable bottle. For soft drinks, grab a can and then make sure to sort and recycle following your municipality’s instructions.

8. Plastic bags – 8,052

The problem: Plastic bags can easily be mistaken as food by animals in all waterways. They resemble jelly fish, salps and ctenophora, and marine animals cannot tell the difference.

Prevention: Bring your own reusable bags.

9. Other packaging – 6,511

The problem: Countless take-out containers are thrown out every day, many of which are composed of materials, like Styrofoam, that cannot be recycled by municipalities. 

Prevention: Support businesses that accept reusable/refillable containers, when you can, bringing your own cutlery and containers is always best! Refuse unnecessary packaging, opt for recyclable materials (dependent on your area) where possible, and specify that you don’t want a bag or cutlery. 

10. Coffee Cups – 5,426

The problem: While coffee cups seem like they will break down easily, most don’t. Many contain a plastic polyethylene layer and  aren’t easily biodegradable.

Prevention: Reusable mugs are the best option, however many places aren’t currently accepting reusable mugs due to COVID-19 health protocols. Save some money and make you coffee or tea at home.

11. Straws – 5,289

The problem: Straws are redundant for a lot of the population and are very difficult to recycle due to their light weight. While some humans need straws, marine life does not. 

Prevention: While plastic straws may be necessary for some people, for others silicone, metal or bamboo straws can now easily be found in many stores and online!

12. Foam – 4,663

The problem: Foam can wash up on shorelines from boating and recreational activities. Larger pieces get weathered and will crumble when you pick them up, leading to even more tiny bits of foam.

Prevention: Ask your local marina to switch to encased foam floats, which extend the life of the floats and end the breakdown of foam nodules!

Are there items on this list you use in your daily life that you could replace with a more sustainable alternative, or ditch the use of altogether? Not sure where to start? Why not take a look at your trash and measure your impact, with the help of our individual audit. Pick two or three items to tackle first, and then once you have succeeded, move on to the next challenge!

As we move forward, continued action will be paramount to reduce the amount of litter collecting on our shorelines and in our waterbodies, particularly with the added challenges of COVID-19. In addition to taking action to reduce personal contributions to shoreline litter, all Canadians are encouraged to help keep our shorelines healthy by organizing or joining a physically-distanced shoreline cleanup. Register today at

Visit here to read Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup’s Annual Report.

Visit here to view the Dirty Dozen map.

Visit here for more information on plastic reduction.

A conservation partnership by Ocean Wise and WWF-Canada, Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup aims to promote understanding of shoreline litter issues by engaging Canadians to rehabilitate shoreline areas through cleanups.

Posted June 10, 2021 by Public Relations

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