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.
Over this past summer, while you were walking along the waterfront, taking a ferry to Centre Island, or swimming at Cherry Beach you may have encountered bright orange water bottles drifting aimlessly through Toronto Harbour, but these water bottles weren’t litter – they were research! We, the U of T Trash Team, launched the Tagging Trash project in collaboration with PortsToronto, Toronto Region Conservation Authority, Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, and University of Toronto Scarborough, to learn how plastic litter travels in our harbour. Throughout April to August, we released orange GPS-tracked bottles from various points across the Toronto Waterfront, Harbour, and Islands. You may be asking, “Why? Isn’t this making plastic pollution worse?” The answer is, we are actually working towards solving our plastic problem. Plastic pollution in our waters causes harm to wildlife and tarnishes the beauty of our lake. To address this problem we first need to understand where litter comes from, where it travels, and how long it takes for litter to reach its final destination. Through our research, we were able to collect valuable data that reveals the way floating plastic litter travels in our harbour and where we need to place cleanup technologies like Seabins!
So, HOW did we do this?
Step 1: Designing the tracker bottles
Why water bottles? Plastic bottles are a common litter item found along shorelines. They are also large and buoyant, which makes them the perfect housing for our Globalstar IoT Satellite Trackers. We also needed to ensure that our GPS trackers were always facing the sky to provide us with the most accurate GPS coordinates – and these bottles were an ideal shape for adding the necessary weight to act as ballast and keep the trackers facing skyward.
To try to prevent people from mistaking our bottles as trash (more on this below), we posted signs about our project and labelled each bottle with clear messaging that they were for research with a QR code linked to our website. We also publicized our Tagging Trash project through social media and the local news.
Step 2: Selecting deployment locations
To get realistic information regarding how litter moves in the harbour, we released bottles from areas that are likely sources of plastic litter based on Visual Audits conducted in the summer of 2020, visitor hotspots, and scientific studies of water movement within the harbour. Overall, we picked 13 locations, ranging from Bathurst Quay, Keating Channel, the tip of Tommy Thompson Park, and the Toronto Islands.
The Tagging Trash initial (yellow) and final (magenta) positions in Toronto Harbour (Google Earth 18.104.22.16848 (2021) Toronto Harbour, 43°38’20”N, 79°22’20”W).
Step 3: Tracking where the bottles went
After observing how the bottles traveled over a period of 4 months, we learned that litter gets into the nooks and crannies of our waterfront. Anywhere we found our GPS-tracked bottles, there were hundreds of pieces of litter. Our bottles also revealed some really interesting movement patterns.
Having a nice view depends on where you look, eh? Bottle floating in and out of the Pirates life dock at Bathurst Quay.
Most of our bottles quickly travelled through Toronto Harbour for about one kilometer before becoming trapped or stranded on shore within a day of being deployed. These bottles, which have similar trends in travel, were typically recovered from sheltered areas like slips, bays, and under piers, docks, and boardwalks. This information lets us and policy makers know that most of the trash in the harbour likely comes from Toronto. Litter which makes its way into the middle of the harbour tends to move with the prevailing winds toward the Keating Channel and the shipping channel. This is concerning because we suspect that plastics can be hit by boats and broken into smaller pieces of plastics, expediting the formation of microplastics. More trash capture devices and local trash cans with lids will reduce the litter in Toronto Harbour and prevent the formation of microplastics.
Above is a wind rose which shows the directions from which wind travels in Toronto Harbour. The longer bars indicate that winds blow more often while the colour corresponds to wind speeds. For the summer of 2021, the prevailing winds blew from the west/west-southwest nearly 25% of the time and there were several storms that brought in strong winds from the east.The observed westerly prevailing winds help keep litter in Toronto Harbour.
Bottles became trapped under city infrastructure or stranded onshore once they reached areas sheltered from the wind. Occasionally, large waves from storms would strand bottles on land and prevent them from travelling within the harbour. Some bottles, however, were a little more adventurous.
While most of our bottles stayed in the harbour, the ones that escaped the harbour left through the Western Gap more often than the Eastern Gap, and would soon beach. To test if trash from Toronto’s popular beaches could travel farther into Lake Ontario, bottle “John Tory”, from deployment 3, was deployed from the southern end of Center Island. During its 300 km journey, it spiraled its way to Ajax. The spiraling path demonstrates the Coriolis effect from Earth’s rotation. A more adventurous bottle, Onitariio, was released from the tip of Tommy Thompson Park to test if litter east of the harbour is likely to travel into the harbour. Remarkably, this bottle travelled across Lake Ontario for 300 km until its batteries ran out of charge near Rochester, NY.
Bottle “Onitariio” (yellow) from our April test-deployment was released from Tommy Thompson Park and had travelled past Rochester, New York. Bottle “John Tory” (pink) from our third deployment had travelled from Center Island and beached in Ajax.
Some bottles weren’t big on travelling and were retrieved only a few dozen meters from their deployment locations. They became stuck under the boardwalks near Harbour Square Park West and were, unfortunately, not reachable by powerboat; we had to retrieve these trackers by kayak! While retrieving them, we found hundreds of pieces of litter from clothing, boating gear, food containers, and many microplastics. These hard to reach areas could use passive trash capture devices (like Seabins) to make litter collection more feasible.
We observed several of our bottles travelling up into the Keating channel, and past the floating boom at the mouth of the Don River, which had been installed to prevent trash from flowing down the Don River and into Toronto Harbour. This movement surprised us because we didn’t expect our bottles to travel against the water current, but we later discovered that the winds were strong enough to push our bottles upstream. This information suggests the need to improve the effectiveness of “leaky” booms.
Other bottles that surprised us were those that ended up in garbage cans, despite our outreach attempts. This made for some interesting fieldwork; we found ourselves digging through garbage cans like raccoons when searching for our bottles. Although losing trackers to the garbage was frustrating at times, it showed that Torontonians care about the environment and feel a responsibility to keep their waters clean and plastic-free. We also saw, in real-time, the pathway our litter takes once thrown away – it heads to our city landfill located in London, Ontario!
We rescued some of our tracker bottles from the trash, can you spot one in this trash bin?
Step 4: Analyzing our findings
Overall, we had a ton of fun and learned a lot about how litter moves within our waterfront. We found that most of our litter likely stays in our own backyard. With the exception of a few sneaky bottles, most quickly accumulated in nearby sheltered slips, piers and embayments. Patricia Semcesen continues to work on this project and analyze our data which she will use to develop a hydrodynamic model that will help understand and predict the transport of plastic litter in Toronto Harbour.
Once the hydrodynamic model is developed, its results will inform where future trash captures devices should be placed to prevent litter from escaping into Lake Ontario. This information will also help in improving waste-management infrastructure, and encourage environmentally-friendly initiatives to reduce plastic litter locally, like bring-your-own reusable container and cutlery discounts. It can also tell us where regular cleanups should be organized to pick up trash from hard to reach places (like beneath boardwalks and docks) where trash capture devices can’t be placed. Along with collecting valuable data, we also found the Tagging Trash project a great tool for outreach and communication surrounding waste literacy both locally and globally. We hope to inspire groups across the world to initiate their own projects to better understand the fate of plastics in their waterways.
Written by Cassandra Sherlock (top), Former Community Outreach and Research Specialist at the U of T Trash Team, and Patricia Semcesen (bottom), Environmental Science PhD student at the University of Toronto, Scarborough.
We would like to thank everyone who assisted in making this project a success which includes our U of T Trash Team volunteers: Lisa Erdle, Brendan Carberry, Emily Darling, Madeline Milne, Ludovic Hermabessiere, Rachel Giles, Hayley McIlwraith, Su’aad Juman-Yassin, and Ariba Afaq, from GlobalStar Martin Jefferson, from TRCA, Laura Salazar, Matthew Fraschetti, Kirstin Pautler, Samuel Burr, Mark Wilush, Connor Hill, Brynn Coey, Brian Graham and Angela Wallace, from PortsToronto, Micheal David, Chris Sawicki and Jessica Pellerin, from MECP Bogdan Hlevca, from U of T, Matthew Wells, Chelsea Rochman, Rafaela F. Gutierrez and Susan Debreceni. We’d also like to thank our funders: Environment and Climate Change Canada and National Geographic.
We all use plastic at least once a day. It’s everywhere. It’s in the laptop I’m using to write this blog, it’s in the clothes I’m wearing as I sit at my desk, and it’s in the packaging protecting the food I bought from the grocery store. It’s easy to see how much we rely on plastic. But what we don’t see is that this widespread dependence on plastics has led to widespread contamination of microplastics – tiny pieces of plastic (< 5mm in size) that float in the air around us and lurk in the food we eat and water we drink.
Recently, researchers in the Rochman Lab and collaborators at the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks sampled seven species of sportfish from Lake Simcoe – situated in Ontario, Canada. With these fish, we were trying to understand how much microplastic they were eating and whether these particles were also present in the fillets that we eat. To do this, we looked for microplastics in the stomach, fillet and liver of each fish. Our study revealed that microplastics were present in the stomachs of nearly all of the fish sampled, and this did not come as a surprise, given a recent study where we demonstrated relatively high concentrations of microplastics in several species of fish from Lake Ontario and Lake Superior.
However, we also found microplastics were widespread in the fillets and livers of all seven species. This means that plastics are not just being excreted after being ingested (i.e., via poop), but they’re also travelling to other parts of the body – including the parts we eat.
Previous research has suggested that microplastics can transfer from a gut to a fillet, but here we show widespread occurrence in wild fish. Around 74% of fillets and 63% of livers had at least one microplastic present, while 99% of fish had at least one particle present in any of the three studied tissues.
Now before raising the alarm bells and cutting fish out of your diet, keep in mind the levels we found were low relative to other sources of microplastics we may be exposed to. In our study, we calculated the yearly intake of microplastics based on a diet of eating half a pound of fish twice per week. For most of the fish species in our study, average consumption would be less than 1000 microplastics a year.
In comparison, another study estimated that 35,000 – 62,000 microplastics are inhaled annually by the average adult. These other exposure routes include drinking water, beer, salt and even honey. All of this raises questions about the many routes of exposure, and how microplastic contamination relates to risk for humans.
But that’s not all, we found something else that was really interesting. For seafood, we are used to being advised about how much to eat in our diets due to contamination from organic chemicals – such as mercury or PCBs. We are generally told to eat fewer top predators or long-lived fish, because these fish tend to have higher levels of these toxins. In this study, our data suggests the opposite may be true for microplastics. We found that while larger fish contained a higher number of microplastics overall, it was the smallest fish that contained more microplastics per gram of tissue. So, if you cut a piece of fillet of the exact same size from the largest fish and from the smallest fish, the fillet from the small fish would have more pieces of plastic inside it. These results highlight the uniqueness of microplastics as a contaminant – i.e., they are physical particles rather than dissolved organic chemicals, and thus may behave differently than chemical contaminants. These unique properties are important, especially when considering their risks and effects in the environment.
The uniqueness of our results opens up new avenues of research relevant to the fate and risks of microplastics in food webs. Don’t worry, members from our lab are already on it! A current project is looking at fish fillets from Lake Ontario, where we already know fish have lots of microplastics in their guts – some up to 900 particles!
Overall, this study raises many more questions than it answers and until then, we need to reduce our plastic waste, reuse as much as possible and recycle when we can. Each of these actions will reduce plastic emissions to the environment and reduce plastic exposure for us.
Written by Hayley McIlwraith, Research Assistant in the Rochman Lab and Chelsea Rochman, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, co-founder of the University of Toronto Trash Team and Scientific Advisor to the Ocean Conservancy.
How we adapted classroom programs for virtual learning
Aligned with our mission at the U of T Trash Team, one of our goals is to engage young minds about waste literacy. Teaching plastic pollution is a meaningful way to help future generations learn to prevent waste and choose more sustainable lifestyles. Participation in environmental education activities can improve children’s environmental knowledge and attitudes. It may also help shift behaviour. With all of this in mind, our team designed a series of lessons for Grade 5 students to improve scientific and waste literacy and to foster a sense of curiosity about the natural world and human impacts on the planet.
Our lessons were co-created among our team of young volunteers, many actively researching plastics in aquatic environments. In total, we created four lessons: 1) plastic cycle, 2) watersheds and their relationship to litter, 3) impacts of plastic on ecosystems and 4) solutions to plastic pollution. These lessons were created in 2019 and piloted in the classroom in early 2020. They were initially created to be delivered in person with all sorts of fun hands-on activities. Little did we know that the COVID-19 pandemic would change our plans.
From the classroom to the computer
As many groups around the world also experienced, we had to quickly adapt to the virtual world. It wasn’t easy at first and there were many new technological skills to learn in this new online learning environment. We also had to reconsider our activities – because elementary students could not share materials. This meant experiments, games and activities couldn’t be done in groups and had to be provided for them to play independently. A lot of planning and effort was put into redesigning the lessons to make sure we could keep the same learning objectives while providing interactive activities that would still be just as fun remotely. For example, in one activity we explore how plastic travels in a watershed with a game called Float, Sink or Suspend. Students create a hypothesis about how different types of plastic behave in the water column and test this out by dropping them into a container of water and observing the results. To adapt to online, we had students share their hypotheses through fun movements: a backstroke for float, an anchor for sink, and wiggling their arms like a jellyfish for suspend, and created a video to show what happens to each item. Not only did this activity allow an opportunity for play, but it also provided time to get up and stretch.
Teaching in a virtual world
Another important piece of this process was adapting to online teaching. In our program, students are taught by our incredible Waste Literacy Instructors – a team of undergraduate students, graduate students and early-career scientists who volunteer their time to mentor Grade 5 students. These volunteers embraced the task, and were excited and ready to deliver high-quality peer-to-peer lessons with high energy in a virtual classroom. To achieve this, we trained our instructors for each lesson with a focus on four things: content, pedagogy, engaging a class online, and the tech. This provided a unique opportunity to learn new communication skills. Our instructors did great, and had a lot of fun while doing so. Su’aad Juman-Yassin and Anusha Srinivasan both echoed those sentiments:
“I thought it would be a great opportunity to work on my science communication skills. I also find it very fulfilling to be able to understand a concept and facilitate that understanding for someone else.” (Anusha)
“It is a super fun way to connect with lots of amazing students and teachers and I have definitely learned an interesting fact or two from the lesson plans myself!”[…] “The final lesson in our classroom series is all about finding solutions to plastic pollution. Students are tasked with coming up with a creative way to combat plastic pollutants and the amazing ideas they come up with, from a Jet ski contest … to a giant mechanical fish that eats plastic …, are always so exciting to hear about!” (Su’aad)
Landing in a virtual classroom
Teachers welcomed us into their virtual classrooms, and provided our volunteers and their students with a great experience. They went above and beyond by providing guidance and feedback to improve our lessons and keep students engaged. Although we would have loved to have been together in person, an online classroom still provided the space we needed to have positive impact.
Looking back, there was a lot to be gained from this virtual school year. As a result, we are confident and prepared for whatever scenario comes this fall. The truth is, we can’t wait to be back in the classroom again, whether in-person or remote! With the support of the teachers, the talent of our instructors and the engagement of the students, our team was able to deliver 31 lessons across the Greater Toronto Area during the 2020/2021 school year, inspiring kids and teachers to continue the discussion about plastic pollution despite a global pandemic.
Blog written by Rafaela Gutierrez, Program Lead of Social Science and Educational Programs for the U of T Trash Team and Susan Debreceni, Program Lead of Volunteer Engagement and Community Programs. For more details and to book a classroom visit, please email Rafaela.
Hartley, B.L; Pahl, S., Holland, M.; I. Alampei, J.M. Veiga, R.C. Thompson. Turning the tide on trash: empowering European educators and school students to tackle marine litter. Marine Policy, 96 (2018), pp. 227-234, 10.1016/j.marpol.2018.02.002
Liefländer, A. K., G. Fröhlich, F. X. Bogner, and P. W. Schultz. 2013. “Promoting Connectedness with Nature through Environmental Education.” Environmental Education Research 19 (3): 370–384. doi:10.1080/13504622.2012.697545.
Owens, K.A. Using experiential marine debris education to make an impact: collecting debris, informing policy makers, and influencing students. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 127 (2018), pp. 804-810, 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2017.10.004
There is no time to waste, and we all must do our part
To prevent the devastating impact of plastic pollution, we must implement diverse mitigation strategies today, including reduction of plastics, more sustainable waste management and cleanup. Even as countries ban single-use plastics and increase their waste management, cleanup will continue to be an essential part of the solution toolbox. And if we really want to significantly reduce the amount of plastic ending up in our waters, then we must increase our level of cleanup by orders of magnitude—in order to meet our target cleanup goal at least 1 billion people would have to participate in Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup each year. So how can we increase our cleanup effort, and do it substantially?
The answer, in part: trash trapping technologies! These devices work around the clock to make a huge impact: Mr. Trash Wheel in Baltimore harbour can collect up to 38,000 pounds of trash in a single day. Not only do they help us remove plastic directly from our waterways, but they are also a research tool. By collecting data, like the types and amount of plastics these devices capture, we can quantitatively measure our impact and inform local source-reduction. They are also an incredible way to raise awareness and can easily become a centrepiece for education and outreach, like Mr. Trash Wheel, who inspires imagination and local solutions in the Baltimore community.
Part of our mission is to work locally to make a difference globally. At our “Trapping Trash and Diverting it from our Waterways” workshop, we aim to motivate local groups of stakeholders to come together to form a more impactful, global collective. We will provide the recipe for success, and share our tools for harmonized data collection to enable each team to quantify their individual impact and share it within the International Coastal Cleanup global database.
If we truly combine our efforts to strengthen the volume of plastic waste cleaned up around the world, we can make a measurable difference. And we can do it better together.
Written by Chelsea Rochman, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, co-founder of the University of Toronto Trash Team and Scientific Advisor to the Ocean Conservancy.
This New Year we think everyone will be happy to say goodbye to 2020 and hello to 2021.
With the new year approaching, there is an opportunity for setting new personal goals and of course – New Year’s Resolutions!
This year rather than vowing to exercise more, save money, or maintain a healthier diet, why not try reducing your household waste and increasing your waste literacy?
At the U of T Trash Team these goals are our mission, and this New Year’s we want to help you make positive changes your waste habits. How? Through our Home Waste Audit!
During the Summer of 2020, we ran a Home Waste Audit as part of Plastic Free July. This audit was so successful that we decided to bring it back for New Years. So, if you’re looking to reduce your household waste in 2020 – join us!
What can you expect? The Home Waste Audit will run over the course of four weeks, from Wednesday January 13 – Tuesday February 9, with an introductory webinar on Tuesday January 12 (and results Tuesday February 23). Throughout, we will be there providing all the tools you need to learn more about your local recycling guidelines, ways to reduce your landfill waste, and of course, ways to reduce your plastic waste.
See below for a summary of results from July and examples of weekly waste. Participants spanned 2 countries, 4 provinces/states, and 8 cities.
Increasing our waste literacy is empowering. It enables us to make smart choices about the materials we buy, how we use these materials, and what we do with them once we when they reach end-of-life. Combined, these smart choices reduce waste and protect our environment.
Together let’s make 2021 a better year, with a common goal to reduce excess waste one item at a time, one household at a time. Start the year off right, with us, building habits that can last for many years to come.
If you have any questions about the Home Waste Audit or how to take part, please contact us at UofTTrashTeam@gmail.com. We hope to see you soon!
Written by Chelsea Rochman; Assistant Professor at University of Toronto, co-founder of the U of T Trash Team, and Hannah De Frond, Research Assistant in the Rochman Lab and member of the U of T Trash Team.
Our socially distanced approach to neighbourhood cleanups.
Cleanups are one of the U of T Trash Team’s favourite ways of connecting with the community AND fighting plastic pollution. Months of planning, research, and outreach culminate into an energizing day of meeting Toronto’s enthusiastic volunteers while protecting our beautiful watersheds. We live for snagging that 10,000th cigarette butt, removing a nefarious water bottle from the brink of floating in a river, or finally putting a coffee cup in its rightful place (hint: not the recycling bin!).
Last year we hosted our inaugural Urban Litter Challenge (ULC). Why an “Urban” litter challenge? Well, everything upstream connects to Lake Ontario via storm drains, rivers, streams, and creeks in what’s called a watershed. Keeping our lake clean means keeping our inland neighbourhoods and urban centres clean! Our first event was an incredible celebration and a day we’ll always remember, so you can imagine our initial disappointment when we realized that for this year’s International Coastal Cleanup, we wouldn’t be able to clean with our full volunteer team together in one location.
But that didn’t mean we couldn’t have volunteers at all – or a big impact.
Struck by COVID-19 restrictions, we rebounded fast. Coupled with new safety measures, our team revamped the event as a socially distanced cleanup extravaganza. One large cleanup near campus became eleven smaller cleanups across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) as our site leaders took the trash battle straight to their own neighbourhoods.
What did we find?
By spreading out, we were able to cover over 19 km and reach multiple watersheds with double the number of volunteers (from 80 volunteers to 173)! That also meant more than double the trash was collected (51 kg, 25,595 litter items). We found litter of all types too – 13,000 cigarette butts across all parks, a lone rubber duck at Trinity Bellwoods, a TV at Barbara Hall Park, and even a barbecue at Summerlea! At Christie Pits, Jessica Pellerin (Media Relations and Public Affairs Specialist with PortsToronto) and her partner were shocked to find high numbers of cigarette butts within two hours of cleaning litter.
Small-scale litter was abundant too and at the end of the day our 11 locations cleaned up a total of 4,375 small plastic pieces (plastic less than 2.5cm). Jessica shared that it was an eye-opening experience to see how easily the microplastics, and items like cigarette butts, could be carried into storm drains throughout the watershed.
But if you ask any Trash Team volunteer what their best find of the day was, they’ll tell you the same thing: Community.
Trash Team volunteers were able to lead cleanups in their local parks and share their passion for healthy watersheds with their neighbours. After a challenging year of cancelled travelled plans, working from home, and extensive virtual interactions, local parks have become something of a haven for communities. In a June 2020 survey from Park People, almost three-quarters (70%) of Canadians said their appreciation for parks and green spaces increased during COVID-19.
Volunteers at Rennie Park certainly felt that way, sharing that they felt a newfound sense of importance and responsibility to take care of their park because it’s where their kids play and their families come together. Our leads certainly noticed more multi-generational families and groups of friends this year, helping to clean the parks they’d relied on all summer! Indeed, our Christie Pits’ leaders noted a multitude of small events in the park, ranging from picnics, to dog-walking groups, ballroom dance classes and religious gatherings. It was clear that being stewards of our green spaces is important for both preventing litter from entering our waterbodies and also maintaining precious community space.
This ULC was an important way to recognize the increased impact we’ve been having on our green spaces, too. A couple at Coronation Park mentioned they usually bike through the park, and don’t give too much thought to the masks, gloves, cigarette butts, and microplastics lining the sidewalks and picnic areas. Joining our cleanup helped them slow down and recognize how abundant pollution is. Chris Sawicki (Vice President of Infrastructure, Planning, and Environment with PortsToronto) echoed those sentiments.
“My wife Annemarie and I, and our dog Odie, helped to clean up Rennie park in Toronto’s west end. At first glance, the park seemed quite clean; however, after a couple of hours of work we accumulated a large amount of litter from cigarette butts to discarded face masks largely in and around the parking lot. What a great way to enjoy a beautiful day and do our small part for the environment”.
Chris Sawicki, Vice President of Infrastructure, Planning, and Environment with PortsToronto
This year’s ULC was also a great way to see familiar faces again. Local MP Julie Dabrusin swung by to clean Monarch Park with her Trash Team t-shirt, and TV’s eco-adventurers The Water Brothers (Alex and Tyler Mifflin) came out to support two of our sites! Mike David (Project Manager with PortsToronto) joined us too as a co-lead, and said he enjoyed the opportunity to help clean his local park while raising awareness about litter.
The pivot from one large cleanup to many small cleanups definitely had perks. We were able to better connect with our participants. At Trinity Bellwoods, we met one volunteer interested in learning more about policies around plastic, while another had come to connect with like-minded individuals for a start-up she was creating around sustainable products. Christie Pits’ youngest cleaner Anya was thrilled to be collecting data that would contribute to a national database of litter, and even declared she is inspired to become a scientist when she grows up!
Overall, it was a wonderful day. Cleaning along the likes of Greta Thunberg, the Royal Family, and many others across the world during International Coastal Cleanup Month was inspiring and fulfilling. We’re excited to see everyone at our next cleanup, as we continue to shift perceptions on the abundance of trash in the environment and help develop a responsibility to protect the watersheds of our only home – Earth.
Interested in hosting your own socially distanced neighbourhood cleanup? List your event with the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, anywhere in Canada, all types of shorelines (even watersheds).
Blog written by Natasha Djuric, a proud 4th year Ecology & Evolutionary Biology undergraduate and U of T Trash Team volunteer.
The story of a shared vision to raise awareness and reduce litter through research and creativity.
Have you ever noticed litter in or near the water and wondered if there was something more you could to do raise awareness of the problem while at the same time implementing a solution to tackle the challenge? This curiosity was what brought Chelsea Rochman and Susan Debreceni together in a partnership to tackle a global problem. It was just more than two years ago when Chelsea and Susan were inspired by the famous Mr. Trash Wheel in Baltimore and met up with a shared goal to bring a similar wheel to Toronto. Without a clue about how to do this, they began their journey.
At the time, Susan was working for Ocean Wise helping lead the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup and Chelsea was starting her career as an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Together, they knew that having a Trash Wheel in Toronto would capture the public’s attention and become an incredible centrepiece for an education and outreach program helping increase waste literacy in the local community and beyond.
To get started, they reached out to the inventors of Mr. Trash Wheel in Baltimore as well as PortsToronto, who own and manage several areas of Toronto’s waterfront. Immediately upon reaching out, both groups responded to learn more. Shortly afterwards, Chelsea and Susan were joined by Dr. Rafaela Gutierrez, an expert in social science and waste management. These conversations quickly turned into a feasibility study to see if Toronto was a good location for a Trash Wheel. Quickly, Susan, Chelsea and Rafaela gathered a team of 25 undergraduate and graduate students who all shared the same passion for increasing waste literacy. At the time, it was looking like the Don River would be the ideal location for such a device, but ultimately through the results of this study and many, many, many meetings and phone calls with a growing list of stakeholders, the team was struck with the realization that a Trash Wheel was not the best waste solution for Toronto at that moment in time.
Instead of calling it quits and throwing in the towel, they continued to brainstorm with PortsToronto about other waste capture options, including a Roomba like swimming vacuum, capture devices at the end of storm drains, litter skimming vessels and Seabins. Soon after, PortsToronto’s Sustainability Committee began an active discussion about Seabins and connected with the Seabin Project to learn more. Then, in the summer of 2019, two bins were installed in the Outer Harbour Marina.
It was only a matter of days into the initial Seabin trial when the bins were visited by dozens of curious visitors, generated several media interviews and removed 2000+ pieces of plastic from the marina. Everyone was thrilled and as a result we were off to the races and our Trash Wheel at the mouth of the Don River was turning into a plan for more Seabins along the Toronto waterfront.
In the early weeks of October, two additional Seabins were installed in Toronto’s Inner Harbour at Pier 6. On a cold and windy morning a group of local NGOs, the Ontario Minister of the Environment, the local Member of Provincial Parliament, and a Councillor of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation were brought together to celebrate the new bins. In front of the local group, the bins were introduced and demonstrated, and preliminary litter data from phase 1 was shared, all while enjoying hot coffee (in reusable mugs) and Beaver Tails (a famous and delicious Canadian pastry!).
This day was incredibly special and meaningful. It was not only a celebration of the new Seabins, it was also a celebration of how far our team had come and where we were headed. Over the last two years, our hard work and perseverance created a local community group – the U of T Trash Team – a dedicated and passionate team that includes undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs and dedicated staff. The U of T Trash Team’s mission is to increase waste literacy in our community and reduce plastic in our ecosystems.
As a group, the team has developed new waste-literacy school programming, scheduled to begin this year at Grade 5 classrooms across the Greater Toronto Area. The team also runs community outreach programming – including two annual cleanups per year in collaboration with Toronto Region Conservation Authority and Ocean Conservancy. Additionally, the team focuses on solutions-based research – including a pilot project installing lint traps in 100 homes in a small community to divert microfibers from Lake Huron, and working with industry to achieve zero pellet loss to Lake Ontario. And finally, the U of T Trash Team is a proud partner with PortsToronto on the Seabin pilot to “litter”-ally trap trash on its way out to Lake Ontario, preventing it from contaminating our waterways, our fish and our local drinking water.
Written by Chelsea Rochman; Assistant Professor at University of Toronto, co-founder of the U of T Trash Team, and Scientific Advisor to the Ocean Conservancy & Susan Debreceni; Outreach Manager and co-founder of the U of T Trash Team
We hosted our first ever ‘Urban Litter Challenge’ and here’s how the day went.
As you wander around the neighbourhoods of downtown Toronto it’s likely that the shores of Lake Ontario are the furthest thing from your mind, but the shoreline is closer than you think. That’s because we all live in a watershed, where creeks, streams and rivers lead to oceans and lakes. Here at the University of Toronto, a downtown and inland location, we are connected to Lake Ontario via storm drains, so it was the perfect location to host an International Coastal Cleanup and connect our local community to our local watershed. We dubbed it the “Urban Litter Challenge”.
More than just a typical cleanup The morning started on campus at Hart House Circle, where a team of eager Trash Team volunteers gathered to set up for the day and greet student and community volunteers before grouping them into small teams. These teams were then encouraged to keep a record of what they found by recording their findings on data cards as part of the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. These findings are important citizen science contributions that can be used to inform best practices for future waste management.
We were also joined by friends and collaborators to set the tone for the big day. Bear Standing Tall opened the cleanup with an opening prayer, local City Councillor Mike Layton sent words of support for our team to share, and Geoff Wilson (CEO of PortsToronto) spoke about the importance of protecting Lake Ontario, including some exciting updates on their plans to install Seabins in the waterfront. And with these welcoming words, our teams were sent off to clean!
What did we find? Based on past cleanup experiences, we predicted some classic repeat offenders would top the list once again, and as it turns out our predictions were correct. Cigarette butts were easily the number one item found (>7,000!!), followed by miscellaneous scraps of paper, small plastic pieces, food wrappers and plastic bags. Honourable mentions included bottle caps, miscellaneous packaging materials, various personal hygiene items and coffee cups. One of the most unpredictable things about the cleanup was guessing how many people would show up, and we were thrilled with a turnout of 80 volunteers! Together, they removed more than 50 kg of trash from our local watershed, filling nearly 50 bags of garbage and recycling!
What made the day most memorable? It’s always tricky to pinpoint the most memorable part of a day where nearly every moment was incredible, but there were definitely a few standout moments to share. Volunteer teams were encouraged to come up with creative names for their group and they sure did not disappoint, including such creations as the Trash Pandaz, Cigarette Butties, Alvin and the (crumpled) Chip Bags and Dumpster Defenders. Another great moment that happened throughout the day was when passersby expressed their thanks to our volunteers for keeping the neighbourhood clean. All in all, it’s safe to say that the most memorable part of the day for everyone was seeing just how big of a difference they could make in such a short timeframe.
We’re already counting the days until next year’s International Coastal Cleanup event, but there is no reason to wait 365 days to make a difference. Every day we wander our watersheds so this year we challenge you to clean a piece of your watershed everyday by removing one item of litter from a roadside, park or local creek. If someone asks you what you are up to, tell them you are cleaning the oceans and lakes, because no matter where we are, we are always in a watershed.
If you want to stay up to date on all things Trash Team, follow us here. See you at the next cleanup!
Blog written by Susan Debreceni, Outreach Manager and co-founder of the U of T Trash Team and Chelsea Rochman, Assistant Professor at University of Toronto, co-founder of the U of T Trash Team, and Scientific Advisor to the Ocean Conservancy.
This project was undertaken with the financial support of Environment and Climate Change Canada and Ocean Conservancy.
This summer, three members of the Rochman lab (Chelsea Rochman, Kennedy Bucci, and Hayley McIlwraith) were lucky enough to spend two and a half weeks at the IISD-Experimental Lakes Area to conduct microplastic sampling.
What is the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA)?
If you’ve ever taken an undergraduate-level course in ecology or biodiversity, you’ve probably heard about this distinguished research station. The ELA is a system of 58 lakes set aside for research. It is located in a sparsely populated area of Northwestern Ontario, far from industrial development. Although the ELA was previously government-funded and run by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, it is now privately owned and run by the International Institute of Sustainable Development (IISD).
In 1974, David Schindler (founding director of the ELA) and his colleagues conducted a simple, yet elegant experiment to better understand how algae can take over an entire lake, creating an algal bloom. They decided to split Lake 226 in half, and add nitrogen and carbon to one half, and nitrogen, carbon, and phosphorous to the other. When the algal blooms only appeared in the half with phosphorous, they knew that phosphorous was a key factor driving algal blooms. As a direct result of this experiment, countries around the world took action to limit the amount of phosphorous entering their waterways. This experiment demonstrates the importance of the ELA as a natural laboratory. Researchers can gather impactful evidence to better understand key issues affecting the natural world and then use this information to inform policy and encourage positive change.
What research were we working on at the ELA?
The goal of this summer’s project was to determine whether the remote lakes at the ELA are contaminated by microplastics. By now, we know that plastic is a globally ubiquitous contaminant: it’s been found everywhere from urban areas, such as the Don Valley River in Toronto, to more remote locations, such as the Mariana Trench and the Arctic. Sampling at the ELA gave us a unique opportunity to evaluate contamination in remote freshwater lakes.
Just how remote is the ELA?
The field station is located at the end of a 30 km gravel road off the Trans-Canada Highway. It consists of a meal hall, 3 dormitory cabins, a chemistry lab, and a fish lab. Due to its remote location, the camp is not connected to Ontario’s main power grid and thus remains completely off the grid: there is no cell service and very limited Wi-Fi (used for research purposes only).
What was daily life like at the ELA?
So, what’s it like to be a visiting student at the ELA? To live and work at this natural laboratory? In summary: it’s pretty sweet.
A typical day went like this: wake up early, get dressed, go to breakfast at 7:30 am, pet a dog (there were usually 1 or 2 waiting outside the dining hall), eat, meet with colleagues/supervisors to go over the plan for the day, travel to the sample site, collect samples, eat a packed lunch (always sandwiches), travel to next site, sample, travel back home, hopefully make it back for dinner (very rare, but there were always leftovers), participate in fun evening activity, pet a dog, sleep. Repeat.
Reaching our sampling sites could take 30 min to 2 hours, depending on the lake. To access each lake, we used a combination of driving, boating, canoeing, and portaging. The easiest site to reach was Lake 239, which was accessible by motorboat. The most difficult site to reach was Teggau Lake, where we paddled across Lake 239, portaged, paddled across Roddy Lake, and finally portaged another 1.2km before finally arriving at the site. Even though it was a long journey, we were lucky to have an amazing group of people that made the trip seamless and worthwhile.
By the time we returned to camp, we were always exhausted and hungry. Luckily, the camp chefs had prepared a delicious meal while we were away. And it never disappointed – the food was always plentiful and delicious. Some of our favourite meals included pizza, beach barbecues, and pumpkin pancakes.
After dinner, there was usually a fun activity for us to participate in. This included Wednesday night seminars where we learned about on-going projects at the ELA, sing-along bonfires, a paint night, art shows, and even a triathlon. These events were well-attended by everyone at camp, despite our long workdays.
While our days at the ELA were long and grueling, our stay was impactful. Every minute involved trying or learning something new, chatting with researchers and new friends, or simply enjoying the raw nature around us.
What’s next for our work at the ELA?
Our ultimate goal at the Experimental Lakes Area is to do a whole-ecosystem experiment. In contrast to typical laboratory experiments, this large-scale experiment would provide us with ecologically relevant information about the fate and the effects of microplastics. Similar to the famous algal bloom experiment, this project has the potential to influence global action on plastic pollution.
Written by Kennedy Bucci and Hayley McIlwraith, students and researchers in the Rochman Lab. Their work is in collaboration with multiple institutions, including: University of Toronto, Lakehead University, Queen’s University, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and, of course, IISD-ELA.