Reconnecting with our urban shorelines

How we protect our watersheds, one neighbourhood at a time

On a sunny September weekend, groups of community volunteers led by the U of T Trash Team gathered at ten different locations in and around Toronto for the Urban Litter Challenge. This annual cleanup is timed to coincide with the International Coastal Cleanup, and while you might not think of ocean coastlines when you think of Toronto, all drains here lead to a river and/or the Laurentian Great Lakes which eventually lead to the Atlantic Ocean through the St. Lawrence River. Every location around the world is on a watershed, leading to a river, lake and/or ocean – and our Urban Litter Challenge is aimed at connecting the dots from where you live (even if it’s inland) to an aquatic ecosystem. Inland cleanups like these are not only really fun, but can help protect aquatic resources and biodiversity.

Take a look back at our cleanup with our vlog created by U of T Trash Team volunteer and Site Lead, Devajyoti Chakraborty.

By spreading out across different urban locations, our team was able to explore new neighbourhoods and help connect diverse communities to their local watershed. This led to unique conversations about shared experiences at each location. Here are just a few!

  • To remove, or not to remove? At Cedarvale Ravine, volunteers had a lively discussion about whether or not to remove litter embedded in the ground. While it didn’t belong there in the first place, there was now potential to disrupt the natural environment or any newly created habitat for organisms by attempting to remove it.
  • Nurdles all over! At Ward’s Island, a popular cleanup spot, plastic nurdles took the spotlight. These tiny plastic pre-production pellets are a form of microplastic and can be found in this form before they are melted down and moulded into plastic products. Unfortunately, at times, these accidentally spill into the environment from nearby plastic factories and wind up on our shorelines.
  • Ever heard of cellulose acetate? A common cleanup item created new awareness for volunteers at Riverdale Park East. Cigarette butts dominate litter tallies at cleanups, however it’s not common knowledge that paper like filters contain a type of plastic known as cellulose acetate. A volunteer at this cleanup who smoked was surprised to see just how many butts there were, and that they were made from plastic. She vowed to help keep these out of the environment and tell her friends to do the same.
  • What goes in which bin? Site leads at Ashbridge’s Bay Park East helped explore the difference between what goes into the trash and recycling by providing a mini tutorial for their volunteers before the cleanup, an important step to ensuring litter we find can be effectively managed!

Volunteers at Ward’s Island sift through the tiny trash for items like plastic nurdles.

Teams were also able to make some great new community connections. Our Ashbridge’s Bay cleanup welcomed a team of local Girl Guides passionate about reducing waste, and over in the west end at Sunnyside Beach, the team met up to celebrate with Roncy Reduces who had hosted a neighbouring cleanup! Over at the Toronto Music Gardens, rugby players from the U of T varsity team gathered to show their team spirit. Our volunteers also ventured out of the city to add a new cleanup in Vaughan at Maple Lion’s Park, and it was a delight meet up with community members in this new location.

It’s incredible what you can do when you work together. Across ten locations, 154 volunteers removed 16,132 different items of litter. The top items removed include cigarette butts, small plastic pieces, and food wrappers! In response to COVID-19, we also kept a tally of personal protective equipment (PPE), and our Rennie Park location found the most with 78 different items of PPE. This is particularly notable as Rennie Park volunteers also found quite a bit in 2020!

Summary of cleanup results across all ten locations of the 2021 Urban Litter Challenge

Top 10 litter items found across all ten locations of the 2021 Urban Litter Challenge

These results also included some pretty unique finds, like a euro at Trinity Bellwoods, a lost (and returned) wallet at Coronation Park, and a flatscreen TV at Riverdale Park (note: we also found a tv last year at Barbara Hall Park!).

A look at some of the unusual finds during the 20201 Urban Litter Challenge.

Community cleanups are one of the best and most accessible ways to make a positive difference in just a few hours. They are also one of our teams’ favourite experiences and ways to increase waste literacy. You can head out on your own or grab a team of friends and family to help. As we highlight through Urban Litter Challenge, removing litter from any public area will help protect our watersheds and prevent plastic and other litter from reaching our aquatic ecosystems, which for us means our beloved Great Lakes. 

Blog written by Susan Debreceni, Program Lead of Volunteer Engagement and Community Programs for the U of T Trash Team.

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