Time's Up For Toxic Docks

The foam in floating docks is a major source of marine pollution. Washington has just banned it, Canada should too

Jen Groundwater

Discarded styrofoam float polluting a beach

If you live anywhere in coastal British Columbia, you’ve probably walked on countless floating docks. They’re everywhere that the ocean touches: marinas, ports, ferry terminals, aquaculture operations, and on private land. They’re inland, too, in rivers and lakes.

These flexible, versatile structures adjust to changing water levels, and they’re essential to many BC industries, including fishing, aquaculture, shipping, and tourism.

There’s just one problem with them. They’re built on a very fragile foundation: polystyrene foam. This petroleum by-product is made by compressing lightweight plastic cells into a larger aggregate material.

Floating docks, rafts, and other aquatic and aquaculture infrastructure rely on polystyrene foam to keep them afloat. Sometimes the foam is exposed; more often, it’s encased in a durable plastic shell. There are two kinds of polystyrene foam: EPS (expanded) and XPS (extruded). To keep it simple, many people refer to it as “EPS and XPS” or simply “dock foam.”

No matter what you call it, it’s a highly problematic petroleum by-product. It’s made by compressing lightweight plastic cells into a larger aggregate. It doesn’t biodegrade; it’s not easily recycled. The World Health Organization classifies its principal element, styrene, as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

When dock foam is exposed to the forces of water and sunlight, it disintegrates into tiny pieces – microplastics – which are consumed by marine birds and animals, endangering their health.

Foam remnants of all sizes are pervasive throughout the waters off British Columbia. Rachel Blaney, the NDP member of Parliament for BC’s North Island–Powell River riding, describes attending Savary Island’s 2022 shoreline cleanup, where, she says, there were “huge, huge, huge pieces everywhere.” She’s also witnessed millions of minuscule bits of foam on beaches, impossible to clean up.

In the fall of 2022, Blaney began to raise the issue in the House of Commons. Then, in March 2023, she introduced a private member’s bill, M-80, calling for the federal government to ban the use of dock foam and cut its use in floating aquatic structures nationwide. Blaney says, “It’s amazing the response that this has already had. People are learning about it and writing to their MPs across Canada.”

Local residents tend to bear the brunt of removing polystyrene and other detritus from coastlines. Many First Nations and citizen action groups hold regular cleanups to collect debris, recycle what they can (through the Ocean Legacy Foundation’s marine plastic recycling facilities), and send the rest to the landfill.

Changing policy so that the material never even gets near the water will have more impact than a thousand shoreline cleanups.

Citizen groups also press for corporate interests to take responsibility for the pollution they create, and Blaney agrees: “I’d like to see industry taking action and initiative on this,” she says. “It’s about doing the right thing.”

In 2021, Fishing for Plastic (F4P) sent seven volunteers to Desolation Sound as part of the BC government’s Clean Coast, Clean Waters (CCCW) initiative. Barges accompanied them to haul away the material they collected: a staggering 8,440 kilograms of waste from 45 kilometres of shoreline in 11 days.

F4P’s haul included aquaculture items, plastic trays, buoys, pieces of hard plastic, and old tires. The team also collected 432 kg of white foam, 683 foam-filled tires (used for flotation), and two docks, each composed of a big rectangle of foam covered with cement on the top and sides. Even so, Angela Burns, F4P’s director of programs, underlines how big the problem is: “I would say we were a fraction of one per cent of the total cleaned up through CCCW.”

Alternatives

Clearly, we need to stop putting this stuff into the water, especially when we don’t even need fragile polystyrene foam to make something float: air works just as well, if it’s contained within something durable. There’s an increasing array of flotation devices available that are made with weather-resistant, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) shells filled with air. Surfrider Foundation Canada, a not-for-profit concerned with ocean protection policy and action, endorses several such air floats made by Canadian businesses.
Does it make sense to trade one plastic for another? HDPE will degrade over time, though much more slowly than foam. But it’s the best solution we currently have. And it’s definitely worth pursuing as soon as possible: a 2022 study revealed that 81% of microplastics on southern Vancouver Island beaches, particularly near marinas, is polystyrene.

In the long term, changing policy so that the material never even gets near the water will have more impact than a thousand shoreline cleanups.

Washington state has just taken decisive bipartisan action in its fight against marine plastic: an April 2023 bill banned the sale and installation of floats using dock foam (as of July 2024). Canada should enact similar legislation as soon as possible. The next step will be to replace existing foam in government-owned and public docks with air floats. A combination of subsidies, incentives, and tax credits will encourage individuals, private marinas, and industry to do the same.

F4P is gearing up for a summer of awareness raising. Catherine Ostler, F4P’s education coordinator, says, “We’re asking people to write to their MPs anywhere in Canada, because it’s not just a BC problem, it’s on the Great Lakes, it’s on the East Coast as well.”

Support from voters and MPs in other provinces is crucial, Blaney explains, because “the point of private members’ bills is to tell government this is something the people of Canada are concerned about.”

The dock foam problem is solvable, with leadership from the federal government, Blaney believes, and she’s determined to make it happen. “There are options!” she says. “It’s manageable. We could get this done.”

A petition about the issue has already garnered thousands of signatures; to take further action you can use Surfrider’s tool to email your MP and the federal environment minister.


Jen Groundwater is a writer, editor, and author living in the Comox Valley.

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