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Toronto’s Don River: A Source of Plastic Pollution into our Great Lakes

Have you ever wondered just how much plastic makes its way from the Don River into Lake Ontario, and what kind?

They say 80% of all plastic in our ocean and lakes comes from land. Do you live upstream? This doesn’t mean you are immune to having your litter reach aquatic ecosystems. Our trash can hitch a ride on streams and rivers too—leading to our ocean and lakes. In fact, rivers are a major conduit for plastic pollution to reach freshwater and marine ecosystems.

In the city of Toronto, we have four major rivers that lead directly to Lake Ontario—one of the five Laurentian Great Lakes. They are Etobicoke Creek, Mimico Creek, the Humber River and the Don River. The Don River has the highest percentage of urban area than any other river in Canada. As a consequence, we might expect it to be a major source of plastic pollution to our Great Lakes, specifically Lake Ontario.

We were curious just how much plastic litter makes its way from the Don River into Lake Ontario, and what kind. To find out, we took a trip to a dock owned by PortsToronto and characterized the litter that collects on their booms.

Each year PortsToronto removes between 400-900 metric tons of debris from Toronto’s harbour, including in the Don River. At the river mouth, PortsToronto manages a boom system that captures litter before it enters the lake. Litter is removed from the water weekly and shipped to a sorting facility. The wood is recycled into animal bedding and garden mulch and the garbage is sorted into recyclables and non-recyclables.

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© CHELSEA ROCHMAN

The two piles you see were collected on the boom from June 29, 2018 through July 16, 2018. Just a little more than two-weeks. As you can see, it would take days to sort through these piles of wood and trash! Instead, we dove in for an hour and a half to see what we could collect. We picked all of the big litter off the top of both piles, and dug around in the smaller pile until very little big items remained.

What did we find? LOTS!

In 90 minutes, we collected more than 1,400 pieces of litter, plus a 133-liter bag full of Styrofoam pieces. In total, our bounty weighed 31 kg—almost 70 pounds! In our counts and weights, we did not include construction items which are quite heavy. We only included typical litter-sized items. For example, our heaviest item was a soccer ball. In fact, we found a lot of balls—53 of them to be exact! And our strangest item? A carefully wrapped package of animal fur with a beautifully crafted letter inside—in a language we could not translate.

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Overall, the majority of what we found was plastic (surprise!) trash mixed in with a lot of woody debris. You can see our list of top ten finds below. If what we found is representative, we estimate that more than 650 kg of plastic litter enter Lake Ontario from the Don River annually. This would include more than 21,000 pieces of Styrofoam, 12,500 large plastic fragments, 4,000 water bottles, 2,700 bottle caps, 1,300 food wrappers, 1,100 balls and more than 900 straws and cigarette butts each. And remember, this is an underestimate. We did not dig into that large pile.

So, what can we do? The answer is diverse, because there are many ways to prevent plastic pollution from entering our Great Lakes. First, we can make sure our waste enters the proper receptacle (i.e., our blue bin, green bin and black bin). Second, we can use less single-use plastic items, which make up the majority of what we found during our clean-up. Third, we can write letters to our local leaders asking them to consider technology that will prevent litter from entering our lakes from rivers—such as the “Mr. Trash Wheel” in Baltimore. And finally, you can join us for cleanups around the city! We would love to see you out there.

Written by Dr. Chelsea Rochman, a professor at the University of Toronto that researches the sources, fate and effects of plastic pollution in our ocean.

Cleanup The Don

Making Toronto’s most urban river trash-free

On May 6th, 2018, we led our first annual Cleanup the Don inland coastal cleanup to remove trash along the Don River, keep trash out of Lake Ontario and raise awareness about the issue of plastic pollution. Students and researchers from the University of Toronto joined forces with the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, the International Coastal Cleanup and Paddle the Don, an annual event organized by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) where local residents can canoe and kayak down the Don River.

The Don River is Toronto’s most urbanized watershed and is widely enjoyed by citizens and tourists alike. On any given day, one can see a wide variety of activities in the expanse of parkland in the ravines around the Don River. Cyclistswalkers, runners, anglers and others use the trails alongside the river, which is located a short walk from Toronto’s downtown core. But, it is also a river with plastic pollution throughout.

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Participants finished their paddle were treated to watershed model demonstrations at the U of T Trash Team outreach table.

At six locations, spanning over 10km of the Don River, teams collected 210 kg of trash, nearly half of which was recycled. Volunteers found many common items such as plastic packaging, coffee cups, plastic bottles and plastic bags. However, we were surprised to find a few unusual items like a vacuum cleaner, a toboggan and Venetian blinds! By number, cigarette butts were the most common item collected during the cleanup, and nearly 2000 were sent to be recycled. Despite their small size, they can be particularly harmful in the environment due to the toxic chemicals they contain.

Scientists estimate that between 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean from land every year due to mismanaged waste. Plastic can also enter the environment as microplastic—small plastic less than 5mm in size. Canada is taking steps through the microbead ban, which will eliminate microbeads in personal care products (like toothpaste and facewash) as of July 1, 2018. However, policy does not yet address other sources of microplastics, such as microfibers that shed from textiles or synthetic rubber dust from tires.While some pollution may originate from park-goers, wind and rain also carry plastic debris from land into rivers, lakes and oceans. And piece by piece, the pollution adds up.

This year Canada holds the presidency of the G7. As part of its efforts to protect our oceans, Canada has indicated its intentions to support international policy for a zero-plastics-waste charter. At the national level, Canadians have recognized work is also needed to address single-use plastic, increase recycled content in plastic products, and to increase the national recycling rate.

There are many ways we are working to tackle the plastic pollution problem, and we encourage others to do the same:

  1. Avoid single-use plastic items: Using environmentally-friendly items such as stainless steel or glass straws and reusable water bottles, shopping bags and utensils, can help divert waste from landfills and the environment.
  2. Improve recycling at home: By learning better recycling habits, we can prevent recyclable products from ending up in a landfill. While the list of “recyclables” varies depending on where you live, there are often resources available to help. Where we live, the City of Toronto’s Waste Wizard identifies the proper bin to put your waste.
  3. Get involved in your community: Joining a cleanup in your area, (or leading one!) can help reduce plastic in the environment. The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup and International Coastal Cleanup have resources to help organize cleanups, as well as track and report data.

As we continue to lead cleanups, we are hoping to gain valuable information to answer questions such as: Do patterns of waste change over time? Will accumulation of litter in the Don River decrease as “waste literacy” in this watershed improves? We also hope that the data we collect can help provide a better estimation of plastic sources and increase scientific knowledge to inform effective policies to prevent further plastic pollution.

There is still a long way ahead to achieve zero-plastic-waste in our city and others, but our first cleanup showed us that the people care about the plastics problem and are willing to help. Over the next year, we have exciting plans to reduce waste entering Lake Ontario and increase waste literacy in our city. We look forward to seeing you out there!

Written by Lisa Erdle and Kennedy Bucci, Ph.D. students in the Rochman Lab at the University of Toronto.