I’ve been fishing debris out of the river for several years. I began picking up floating trash to make the scenery more appealing to myself and other patrons of Speed River Paddling, a local Guelph kayak/canoe rental company. They used to give me 25% off rentals, so I wanted to do it more. Here’s an early photo from July 2011.
I did this once per week, weather permitting.
After a few seasons, I realized that these weren’t fish eggs or nuts that I was pulling cans, bottles and chunks of Styrofoam out of- it was plastic pellets. So I re-watched “Addicted to Plastic” a documentary by Toronto, Ontario’s Ian Connacher and confirmed my suspicion. June 10th 2015 I rented a kayak and hunted a full large garbage bag full of pellets and asked the owner of Speed River Paddling if he could take it to city hall and have them do something about this. I was naïve, green and knew not what I was getting myself into.
And here’s the bag full. I had much difficulty getting out of the kayak.
Much to the disbelief of my friends, I was pulling out of the river the basic building blocks of the plastic industry. So the next week, there was “no word back” from city hall, but I doubt the owner of SRP did more than throw that blue bag of nurdles in the trash. In May of 2016, I was suspended from my radio show at the University of Guelph and had Mondays wide open to clean the river and get a good workout in. That summer, seeing the pellets all over the place increasingly agitated me, and the following summer by July 2017, there was such a huge amount of plastic pellets in the river it was heartbreaking. I didn’t know who would listen to me, so I vowed to clean them all up, not knowing they were constantly getting into the environment. I just assumed it was one big spill somewhere upstream and I couldn’t track it down. The University of Guelph’s student newspaper came out and photographed me, as one of the members of the Central Student Association had happened upon me while canoeing with her partner, whom worked at a company named Denso Mfg., which uses nurdles for production. She got in touch with me and asked if she could photograph me in the river for an article in the upcoming Homecoming (Frosh week) edition of The Ontarion Magazine.
Then by September 2017, I had the attention of many friends, made new connections on the nurdle matter through my #riverloot posts on facebook, and even got the attention of our Mayor of Guelph, Cam Guthrie. I’d removed approximately the equivalent of 32 of these large plastic bags of pellets at the time. I contacted the Grand River Conservation Authorities, City Hall, the Ministry of Natural Resources but all told me they found nothing or had no authority in the water. I felt somewhat defeated. I didn’t know where the nurdles came from and I couldn’t get any authorities to help. Then came Homecoming weekend(Frosh week) 2017, when the University students come back to town and trashed much of the city, leaving furniture, plastic cups and various debris from downtown to the university. The mayor’s attention was clearly stolen and I was left without political support.
September 17th, 2017 a friend of mine asked to accompany me for a paddle and we set out, he alone in a canoe, and I in my newly acquired, ironic-ly plastic Costco Pelican kayak. When my friend saw that I was scooping up the pellets, he said he knew where they were coming from and we set out to the bridge where Victoria Road crosses the Eramosa river in the east end of Guelph.
He pointed to a fence-line and told me “Polymer Distribution Incorporated is the culprit”, so I made a public post and tagged the company and was met with a mix of praise and discontent, the Facebook post even being shared by an employee of PDI calling it “slander” and I should watch what I say. Through networking it was recommended to me that I contact the Ministry Of the Environment and so I did just that. My contact there took down the information I provided and she asked that I email her pictures of the pellets. So I did just that. Then I waited. The MOE agent in the meantime contacted PDI, took a tour of the train spur and tracks behind their Elizabeth St. facility (not the same as their Victoria Rd. facility) and also walked along the Eramosa river bed. When I next spoke with the agent, they said they didn’t see any pellets, which really surprised me. The agent asked to get together with me so I could show them what I was finding. So I met the agent on the tracks behind PDI and within minutes, I had nurdles in my hand.
I turned to show the agent and noticed they were scraping something that looked like chalk off of a railroad tie. The agent informed me that this was in fact a plastic powder and even more damaging to the eco-system. So we took the samples and headed to the river. I got in my boat and paddled to the first huge collection of plastic pellets on and against an old tree which had fallen into the river. I showed the agent what I was scooping out with my kitchen strainer and we collected more samples. They said they were going to have the samples scientifically cross-analyzed with samples provided from PDI of the 3 types of pellets they make. Not long after that, PDI was found guilty of having the nurdles in the environment and tasked with cleaning them up. They did a poor job of one spot on the river, and the next thing I knew, the McRae Street dam was let down for the rest of the season and paddling in the river was over for 2017.
Then I was contacted by Greg Mercer, a writer for the Kitchener Waterloo Record newspaper. He was very excited about what I had accomplished and asked if he could interview me for an upcoming series about the Grand River Watershed. A couple of months passed, and he contacted me saying he couldn’t wait, as this story needed to be published, so he called me one evening and we chatted over the phone for most of an hour.
Over the winter, I spoke with lots of people on the topic of plastic pellets, including professor of Geo-Hydrology at McMaster University, Jim Smith. He had been a confidant from the early stages of getting the pellets out of the river, as I was worried about removing too much organic matter and upsetting the ecosystem, but he assured me that any organic matter attaching itself with plastic pellets has become compromised and I should remove it. He was very proud and thankful of my efforts. He’s also the professor who is partially funding my trip to beautiful Cork County! I was also invited to speak at a local Kiwanis club meeting about my trials and tribulations with PDI.
In the months that followed, various people waited with anticipation my return to the river. I once again found the river to be littered with an abundant amount of plastic pellets. I felt like all the work I’d done the previous year had been erased. I emailed the MOE and geo-located the spots where accumulations had amassed. I emailed Greg Mercer of the KW Record who’d asked that I keep him in the loop. He simply said that he thought I should contact my local media (Guelph) about it. This struck me as odd. So I emailed Guelphtoday.com and Guelph Mercury Tribune and got no reply. So I emailed every member of both media outlets and again, got no reply. Remaining vigilant, I continued to paddle the river, cleaning the large debris and beautifying the landscape for fellow river enthusiasts, and geo-locating pellet collections for the MOE. Then something strange happened. The pellets actually started to disappear. Starting off slowly at first, but now in July, a large vast majority of the pellets have been removed! The MOE had assured me that PDI told the agent they were in the water every day with chest waders, kayaks and canoes to remove the pellets. July 2nd I paddled the river for my usual #riverloot cleanup and asked the eldest sibling of the family who runs SRP if she’d seen PDI and she said yes, they’d noticed PDI once a week. They told her they were doing “research on plastic in the river.”
Still, at this point, I feel like PDI is showing their due diligence. The professor told me that what has happened is that 1 person in a city of 130 000 people gave a shit, stuck to their guns and through finding the right channels, has held a huge plastics company accountable for their actions. A small battle victory in the global war on proper plastic production. In the meantime, a company that I work closely with called Partytown has become very interested in my efforts and provides me with gift certificates for food after I go out and do my weekly river clean up. A member of upper management took Environmental studies in post secondary really appreciates my work. And now, Partytown has begun a recycling program for their aluminum cans and beer caps company wide! The kick-back goes into Industry parties to thank the staff members for their recycling efforts. Also, PDI has had to install catch-basins on their property to stop pellets from escaping through storm drains, and has also created a recycling program for reclaimed nurdles.
The latest development in my plastics experience is that a local film company, 1 Ward Studios has begun filming a documentary about what I’ve been doing on the river! Professor Jim calls me an expert, and so I’ll be the expert coming to Skibbereen to talk about my experiences with a plastic pellet manufacturing plant like the one you’re fighting against having built. I’ll also be compiling as much video as I can for this documentary.
I can hardly wait! S.O.S.!