Aquatic Debris


On average, each Quebecer produces 404 kg of trash every year, of which 69 kg is recycled. Almost half the trash is of organic origin, while one-third of that remaining is paper or cardboard. Unfortunately, some of this debris finds its way to our shorelines. Last year, during the TD Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup week, some 3,500 kg of trash was collected along only 60 km of shoreline in Québec.

The most frequently collected items are either related to smoking (e.g., cigarette butts, lighters and packages) or to shoreline recreational activities (e.g., food packages, glass and plastic bottles, cartridges and fishing gear). Some items are also linked to navigation (e.g., buoys, ropes and barrels) or to illegal dumping (e.g., tires, refrigerators, furniture and construction material). According to the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC), the top 10 items picked up during CC Week are:

  1. Cigarettes
2. Food packaging and containers
3. Lids and caps
4. Bags
5. Plastic bottles
6. Cups, plates and utensils
7. Glass bottles
8. Cigars
9. Straws and coffee mixers
10. Cans

The aesthetic and environmental damage caused by aquatic debris can only be solved by knowing where it is coming from. That’s why it’s important to document the items you collect during your cleanup. Once the sources of debris are identified, it becomes possible to educate site users or make recommendations to municipalities or park managers.

Moreover, the challenge is global since debris doesn’t stay put. Debris left on a riverside is carried by wind and water to the ocean, where it takes decades to break down, causing death by strangulation or ingestion of thousands of animals every year. An estimated 80% of marine debris comes from land-based sources. Thus, reducing riverside debris also reduces debris reaching the ocean.

To learn more about the origin and impacts of some of the debris commonly found on river and lake shorelines, visit the following sections :

dot Glass
dot Paper and cardboard
dot Plastic
dot Polystyrene (Styrofoam)
dot Metals
dot Cigarette butts
dot Natural debris




Glass is created from sand (for the silicate it contains), sodium carbonate and limestone. The ingredients are first melted at high temperature (1,500oC). The resulting molten glass is then blown or moulded to obtain the desired shape.

Recycled glass melts at a lower temperature than the raw ingredients of glass; recycling one glass jar saves enough electricity to light a lamp for four hours. Glass can be recycled indefinitely without losing its original quality. In 2006 in Québec, 117,000 tonnes of glass was recycled, a recycling rate of 77%.

Glass withstands the elements very effectively. It takes more than a million years to degrade. In other words, the beer bottles that end up in our rivers can trap small animals for a very long time.


papierPaper and cardboard

To produce paper, we must transform wood into fibres. To do so, the wood is soaked in water and chemicals. The fibres are then drained on a sieve, and dried at a high temperature and pressure. The process can be adjusted in many ways to make all kinds of paper.

It is advantageous to recycle paper, since every tonne of recycled paper saves 13 trees, 2.5 barrels of oil, 4,100 kWh of electricity, 4 m3 of space in a landfill and 30,000 litres of water. In 2006, approximately 50% of the paper and cardboard used in Québec found its way to a recycling plant.


Plastic is a lightweight material that easily floats. It is estimated that there are over 120 000 pieces of plastic floating in each km2 of ocean around the world. In fact, plastic is six times more frequent than plankton on the surface of some parts of the Pacific Ocean. Every year, these pieces of plastic kill countless birds, marine mammals and fish that ingest them or get entangled in them.

Plastic, invented in 1860, only came into widespread use over the last 30 years. It is made from fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, from which long chains of molecules, called “polymers”, are extracted. Polymers are processed into granules, powders or liquids, which are then used to manufacture the products we use.

Plastics have been classified into 7 categories. In Québec, categories 1, 2 and 5 are practically always accepted by recycling plants. It is best to check with your municipality to see whether other categories can be recycled in your area. In 2006, approximately 20% of the plastic used in Québec was recycled.

Sac de plastique

Special case: plastic bags

In Québec, an estimated 1.4 to 2.7 billion plastic bags are distributed every year, equivalent to 5 bags per person per week. The recycling rate is only 14%, although 60% of the population has access to recycling centres that can process them.

Plastic bags are very lightweight and are easily carried by wind and water. Once they reach the ocean, they look like jellyfish and other pelagic animals. They can float for decades before breaking down. Every year they kill thousands of birds, sea turtles and marine mammals that eat them thinking they are good snacks, but in fact only getting digestion problems.


PolystyrenePolystyrene (Styrofoam)

Polystyrene is a type of plastic used to manufacture many single-use items: utensils, coffee cups, food trays (for meat, fish and certain vegetables), transparent salad containers and yogurt containers.

Polystyrene is a durable material which decomposes very slowly. It accumulates in the environment easily. It is one of the materials very frequently collected during shoreline cleanups.

In Québec, polystyrene isn’t recycled because there are no recycling facilities that can perform the operation. Costs for recycling polystyrene are high because it is almost always contaminated by food and it is bulky to store.



Metals, such as aluminum, iron and steel, take between 50 and 500 years to decompose in the environment, and can generally be recycled forever.

Recycling an aluminum can saves enough energy to run a television for three hours. In addition, every kilogram of recycled aluminum saves eight kilograms of bauxite (the ore used to manufacture aluminum) and four kilograms of chemicals. In Québec, there are more than 1.3 million cans sold annually, of which 70% reach recycling facilities.


Cigarette butts

Everyone knows that smoking is unhealthy, but few people know the impacts that a discarded cigarette butt has on the environment. Megots

A cigarette butt is composed primarily of cellulose acetate (not cotton) which usually takes five years to decompose. Cigarette butts are commonly found in the stomachs of birds, fish and sea turtles. Animals that eat several butts can suffer indigestion and die.

In addition, the cigarette butt filter traps most of the chemicals from the smoke, such as lead, arsenic and cadmium, before they reach the smoker’s lungs. All of these products are soluble and are quickly released by the butt once it is discarded in the environment. Obviously, a single cigarette butt contains only a small amount of chemicals. However, considering that more than 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are discarded each year worldwide, they are far from negligible as a source of pollution. In all major cleanups worldwide, cigarette butts are always the most numerous items collected.


Natural debris

Branches, aquatic plants, algae and dead animals are things that are normally found in natural habitats. Don’t pick them up. They are a part of the environment and they are important for wildlife. They can be used as shelter and food for many organisms.


To learn more...

The documentation centre of Recyc-Québec contains many documents on recycling and waste management in Québec. It also contains detailed information about different types of wastes (in French).