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I don’t eat fish guts, so do I really eat microplastics?

Our study suggests yes, but not many.

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. 

Lead author, Hayley McIlwraith, looking at the microplastics found in the tissues of fish from Lake Simcoe in Ontario, Canada.

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.

A graph showing the annual intake of microplastics by humans based on a diet of 0.5 lbs of fish twice per week. This is based on data from our study.

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.

Average number of microplastics humans are exposed to from multiple sources.

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!

Of course, knowing that these small plastics are getting inside our bodies is scary. And we don’t yet know what that means for us. Luckily, there are many researchers already looking into the effects on humans. But just like fish excrete most plastics, we likely do too.

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.

Waste Literacy Education in a Virtual World

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[1]. 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.

[1] 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

The Collective Power of Trash Traps

These local solutions tackle global plastic pollution

Plastic pollution in freshwater and marine ecosystems is increasing across the globe. Last year, it was estimated that roughly 30 million tonnes of plastic waste entered our aquatic ecosystems. If we continue business as usual, this number may increase as much as three-fold by 2030—in less than one decade.

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.

Mr. Trash Wheel celebratory floatilla in the Baltimore Harbour. Photo courtesy of the Mr. Trash Wheel Twitter handle.

Together, the U of T Trash Team and Ocean Conservancy are developing a trash trapping network to increase the impact of the International Coastal Cleanup. We aim to bring together stakeholders from across the world with a shared interest in the collective power of trash traps to share data and best practices. To launch our network, we are hosting a virtual workshop, along with PortsToronto, that is free and open to the public.

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.

Ring in the New Year with LESS WASTE

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.

Coming Together While Staying Apart: The 2020 Urban Litter Challenge

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.

This cleanup was undertaken with the financial support of Environment and Climate Change Canada, PortsToronto, National Geographic Society and Ocean Conservancy.

Putting Seabins on Toronto’s Waterfront – Capturing Litter and People’s Imagination

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.

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Chelsea, Susan and Rafaela in Baltimore, Maryland during a visit with Mr. Trash Wheel and his inventors (December 2018).

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.

Big and Little Plastics
An assortment of plastics were captured from Seabins 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!).

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One of the new Seabins at Pier 6 in the Toronto Harbour.

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.

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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

Cleaning up our Hidden Shorelines

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.

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Data cards kept track of what litter items volunteer teams collected.

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. 

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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!

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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.

 

Our Time at The Experimental Lakes Area

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).

ELAmap

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.

Hayley McIlwraith
One or two dogs were usually waiting outside the dining hall each day. © Hayley McIlwraith

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.

Minoli Dias
At our sampling sites, 20L of surface water was pumped through a series of filters. At some sites, we also took sediment cores (pictured here) from the lake bottom.  © Minoli Dias

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.

Kennedy Bucci
© Kennedy Bucci

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.

Kim Geils 2
© Kim Geils

What Litter is Entering Toronto’s Outer Harbour Marina?

A preliminary look at what Seabins are collecting along Toronto’s waterfront.

This past August, PortsToronto installed two Seabins at Toronto’s Outer Harbour Marina and we visited them to count the litter they captured. This was done to help measure their effectiveness and better understand what litter is reaching our Great Lakes. Resembling underwater garbage cans, Seabins help clean the harbour by pumping water through a catch bag. This action removes, along with other contaminants, plastic litter greater than 2mm in length.

removingseabin
Removing Seabin from harbour.

Although it was our first-time quantifying litter from Seabins, it wasn’t our first time counting and classifying trash. We’ve spent many hours over the past few years searching for plastic in an array of environmental samples. These experiences have taught us a lot, but one of the biggest takeaways is that plastic pollution is ubiquitous. With this in mind, we were prepared to spend the entire day counting; however, when we arrived at the marina, we were pleasantly surprised. Since we’ve both participated in community cleanups before, we expected to find large amounts of litter (as this was the trend for many cleanups in urban areas); however, upon arrival our presumption quickly changed. The water was clear and the docks were tidy… surely the Seabins wouldn’t have much to catch then, right?

sizedefinition
Size definitions for ‘big’ and ‘little’ plastics: big plastics were’ bigger than or equal to the size of a nickel’ and little plastics were ‘’between the size of a nickel- and nurdle’ (represented by orange arrow).

Turns out appearances can be deceiving. Half a day later, we’d only finished the easy part: removing plastics larger than a nickel (what we classified as “big plastics”). It would take days to count all the “little plastics” too (those smaller than a nickel but equal to or bigger than a nurdle, small pre-production pellets used in the production of plastic products). Because of this, we decided to subsample and extrapolate the results. After another half day and some quick calculations, the results were in: nearly 2000 pieces of plastic between the two bins. Amazingly, it had all accumulated in less than 24 hours.

litterbreakdown
Breakdown of how litter was sorted and main results.

Much of this experience was surprising, from finding almost 2000 plastics in a seemingly clean environment to having a passersby ask us whether or not we’d found gold. (The answer, unfortunately, is still no). Overall, it was a rewarding learning experience, and a great chance to share our work with those at the marina. It was also a wonderful opportunity to learn more about how to mitigate plastic pollution – including microplastics. Together with other waste management systems, we feel Seabins are an effective form of technology to assist in protecting our bodies of water and are excited to see more innovative technology in the future.

ResultsSummary
Preliminary results indicated a high amount of plastic fragments.

Written by Annissa Ho and Lara Werbowski, two HBSc students at U of T who are members of the Rochman Lab and U of T Trash Team.

 

How I spent my summer Vacation

A sampling of the unique ways some of our team spent their summer.

Summer is over and school is officially back in session, which means students are returning to the classroom and swapping stories about all the fun they got up to over the summer season. Tales of trips to the beach, vacations to exotic locations and new adventures in fine dining– so many stories to share! For the U of T Trash Team, we spent our summer vacation a bit differently. From exotic trips to study litter in Vietnam, many hours in the lab analyzing microplastic samples, to a variety of field work and outreach activities, we sure had quite the memorable summer. This is just a sample of what some of our team got up to.

Nick Tsui: Nick had the opportunity to wade (quite literally) into field work and meet with many groups (including industry, government, and academic stakeholders). His most memorable experience? Getting caught in 60mm+ rainfall doing fieldwork (without a raincoat!).

Rachel-Vietnam-3
Many new friends were made during Rachel’s time in Vietnam

Rachel Giles: Rachel joined Chelsea on a unique opportunity to visit Northern Vietnam and study litter and its impacts on mangroves in Vietnam’s Xuan Thuy National Park. There were many highlights on the trip, which included meeting lots of new friends, trying new and interesting local foods, and seeing mudskippers for the first time!

Jan Bikker: Jan spent her summer in the ABEL lab at McMaster as part of a collaborative study investigating the effects of microplastic exposure on fish behaviour. When not in the lab, she also got to help with fieldwork for two projects- one monitoring the population of the invasive round goby in Hamilton Harbour and the other looking at changes in the fish and zooplankton communities on a gradient away from wastewater treatment plants.

Lisa Erdle: Lisa spent time on Georgian Bay to investigate the effectiveness of washing machines filters at capturing microfibers. Nearly 100 volunteers in Parry Sound installed washing machine filters in their homes as part of a pilot program with U of T and Georgian Bay Forever.

Arielle Earn and Ludovic Hermabessiere: Arielle and Ludovic spent a day in the Rouge Valley during the 2019 Eco Exploration Event talking to many new people about microplastics. They were able to explore some of the beautiful conservation land and even spent time doing a small cleanup of the area, finding a straw, a coffee cup and many fragments of plastic surrounding the nearby stream. They also got to hear many stories from the people they talked to – including one about the folklore surrounding Bigfoot’s existence in Rouge Valley!

Alice (Xia) Zhu: Alice spent her summer analyzing data on microplastics from San Francisco Bay. Many different shapes and polymer types of microplastics were found in sediment, fish, surface water, stormwater, and wastewater from San Francisco Bay and Alice analyzed patterns in their characteristics to help determine the sources of microplastics to The Bay. She had a great time learning new ecological statistics and R functions. Fun fact: over 300 samples were analyzed in total, including 152 fish!

Ludovic Hermabessiere: Ludovic recently moved here from France and spent his first few months in Canada working at the Rochman lab with Raman spectroscopy. His work will help to analyze and identify potential plastic particles faster. Ludovic is also preparing the arrival of a new equipment to identify smaller plastic particles.

KennedyHayleyELA
Kennedy and Hayley enjoyed the field station life while spending time in the Experimental Lakes Area in Northwestern Ontario.

Kennedy Bucci and Hayley McIlwraith: This summer, Kennedy and Hayley left the traditional lab for a natural laboratory at the Experimental Lakes Area in Northwestern Ontario. They collected surface water, sediment, and air samples to look for microplastics in remote boreal lakes. They enjoyed life at the field station, canoeing and portaging to their sampling sites, and returning to camp in the evening for swimming, bonfires, and delicious meals prepared by the camp chefs.

Bonnie Hamilton: Bonnie spent a portion of her summer in the Canadian High Arctic to evaluate contaminant concentrations in Arctic char—a cold adapted Salmonid. This year, her trip was spent off-grid on the tundra at the mouth of the Lachlan River 150km west of Cambridge Bay. Some of the trip highlights included working with collaborators at DFO, UBC and the Arctic Research Foundation, Arctic wolf and grizzly sightings and sampling these beautiful fish!

HamiltonBM_Char2019
Bonnie (and arctic char), during her time in the Canadian High Arctic.

Annissa Ho and Lara Werbowksi: Lara and Annissa got out of the lab and spent a day at the Outer Harbour Marina counting and categorizing trash collected by Seabins. Despite the smell, the activity attracted some passers-by and allowed Lara and Annissa to share their new knowledge of the trash in the marina! Overall, it was a great experience and the results were fascinating. Their favourite finding? One bin captured more than 1000 pieces of plastic in less than 24 hours!

We can’t wait to see what our Trash Team gets up to this fall and winter season, likely it will be filled with more tales of field work, outreach events, and travels to see plastic pollution abroad.

Written by Susan Debreceni, Outreach Assistant for the U of T Trash Team.