(Alena E.S. Wildlife and Nature Photography)

In the ongoing debate around waste reduction, banning plastic straws is frequently touted as the silver bullet solution to the world’s garbage woes.

But almost 50 per cent of the litter recovered from beaches in large urban areas such as Vancouver and Victoria is made up of cigarettes, according to a new study from the University of British Columbia (UBC).

UBC researchers analyzed data from 1,126 voluntary cleanups organized by the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup (GCSC) along the coast of B.C. between 2013 and 2016.

“We found that generally 80 to 90 per cent of the litter that’s being collected is still plastic waste,” said Cassandra Konecny, co-author of the study and master’s student in the department of zoology and Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at UBC.

“We also found that while the amount of trash being collected didn’t vary much over time, the type of litter varied by region.”

Researchers grouped the waste items into five categories by source—smoking, recreation, fishing, dumping, and hygiene products—and then sorted them by region.

The most common pieces of litter they found include cigarettes and filters, foam pieces, plastic pieces, and food wrappers and containers.

“In places like the southern Strait of Georgia which includes larger urban areas like Vancouver and Victoria, we see that cigarettes and cigarette filters—which are made of plastic—account for almost 50 per cent of litter recovered,” said co-author Vanessa Fladmark, a master’s student in the department of earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences and Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at UBC.

Researchers saw more recreational items like large plastic bottles or plastic bags in areas around northern B.C. like Prince Rupert and Haida Gwaii.

The study’s findings could be used to help guide waste management strategies across B.C., as researchers say more needs to be done to reduce the amount of litter that ends up in the water or on coastlines.

“For example, we’ve heard a lot recently about banning single-use plastic straws in the City of Vancouver. But if the data shows that smoking is a big issue and mostly we’re just picking up cigarettes, that’s perhaps a good place to start,” said Konecny.

Several companies have already announced that they’ll be removing plastic straws from their stores, including Starbucks and A&W.

Researchers recommend that more effort should be put towards changing regulations around production and distribution of the items most commonly found on shorelines. They also suggest raising greater awareness around marine pollution, and implementing better waste management infrastructure.

The paper was published in the latest issue of the Marine Pollution Bulletin.

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