A little more than a year ago, Karen Jenner was at a nearby beach on the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia when she started picking up escape hatches from lobster traps. These are small rectangular pieces of plastic that have a vent large enough to give undersized lobsters a way to exit the trap.
"It started as a fun thing, collecting one item," Jenner tells MNN. "In only a few beach visits, I had collected over 500 of the hatches, and they were becoming harder to find. So I started collecting a few other things and gradually got to where I am now, collecting almost anything that I can remove from the beach."
In just over a year, Jenner has hauled home more than 2.4 tons of mostly plastic trash. She isn't just one of those people who pick up litter on the beach; she's a super-collector.
Jenner brings everything home to her barn, where she sorts it into groups: rope, bottle caps, balloons, shotgun shell casings, lighters, straws, fishing tags, toys and so much more. She counts and weighs everything (except for rope, which is just weighed).
"In Nova Scotia, very little of what I collect can be recycled, but what can be, is. It all goes to Valley Waste for proper disposal," Jenner says. "A number of things that I have collected have been repurposed in my barn. A ladder serves as a railing going to my hay loft. Plastic edging has been put along borders of horse stalls to prevent chewing. Rope has been used for many things as well as hooks, swivels, etc."
Visual statements and real data
Jenner posts photos of everything she collects on her Nova Scotia Beach Garbage Awareness Facebook page to draw attention to the trash problem.
"I think the most important part of what I do is taking photos and posting them to my Facebook page as well as counting and weighing things," she says. "The visual statements that the photos give cannot be challenged, nor can the numbers. It is real data."
Jenner visits five beaches on the Bay of Fundy, which is home to the highest tides in the world. She typically goes two to three times a week, spending several hours each time looking for trash.
Although she finds many of the same kinds of items on her trips, she also has collected some unusual things.
"A coconut still in the husk as it would be off of a tree was my first interesting find. They do not grow anywhere close to where I live," Jenner says. "I found a plastic grocery store bag from 1979, 40 years old and still looking great, sadly!"
The most intriguing items, she says, are Hooksett plastic disks. In 2011, more than 4 million of these biofilm chips were accidentally released from a wastewater treatment facility in Hooksett, New Hampshire. The disks, which were used to clean the water, ended up in the Merrimack River and then the Atlantic Ocean. Jenner has officially reported finding 34 of them, but discovered even more of them before she knew what they were.
Her beach jaunts are 'quiet' time
Jenner typically goes on her jaunts alone.
"I have a son with special needs and this is 'down' time for me, a time to relax and just enjoy the quiet of being on the beach," she says.
"Many have asked to tag along but I do not host beach cleanups. Many people have commented that they too have been noticing trash on the beach and have started picking it up. How cool is that!"
'Not even a drop in the bucket'
Although Jenner has a barnful of trash that would say otherwise, she is often discouraged that she's not making a difference.
"Very often I am totally overwhelmed by what comes in on an ongoing basis with the tides. Sometimes after westerly winds or a bad storm, the garbage is unbelievable," she says. "If you never went to the beach or the one that you regularly went to was a clean beach, you would have no idea of what comes in where I go. It is often very discouraging because no matter how much you clean up, there will always be more to do. I joke that it is a fool's job!"
Some days, she says she's ready to give up.
"I have often thought, 'That's it, I am finished and that it is nothing more than a waste of my time.' Yet a few days later, I am off again! I keep doing it because whatever I remove from the shoreline will not ever be a hazard again for marine life," she says. "As far as making a difference with the problem of plastic in the ocean, it is not even a drop in the bucket."