A Tale of Tagging Trash

Oh the places they’ll go!

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 7.3.4.8248 (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.

Trendy Trackers

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.

Escape artists

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.

Couch potatoes

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.

Surprises

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.

Acknowledgements

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.

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.

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.

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!).

SusanDebreceni_20191010_112950
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.

Untitled design

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

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.

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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!

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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.

Mangroves are Vital to Vietnam’s Coastal Communities

A case study of plastic pollution and ecosystem health in Xuân Thủy National Park.

“Rice bag fragments: 2. Food wrappers: 7.”

This was our rhythm while counting litter along the northern coastline of Vietnam. For four days, we maneuvered through what seemed like a video game adventure—dodging obstacles while onboard a boat, trudging through mudflats and combing through the thickest of forests. I was with Dr. Chelsea Rochman and Rachel Giles from the University of Toronto, representing Ocean Conservancy on a research expedition in the beautiful mangrove forests of Xuân Thủy National Park, Vietnam. We were there to assess how the biodiversity of the environment and the livelihoods of nearby coastal communities are affected by plastic pollution.

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Mr. Nguyễn Viết Cách, former director of Xuân Thủy National Park, points out a flower known as hoa bần on a mangrove apple tree. © Cindy Nguyen

Xuân Thủy National Park sits at the mouth of the Sông Hồng, or the Red River: a broader estuary ecosystem which supports mangroves, intertidal habitats and feeding grounds for important migratory bird species. The park, Southeast Asia’s first Ramsar Site, falls along the coast of the East Sea and is recognized as a fundamental site for conservation because of the ecological functions it performs as a wetland. Not only does it serve as a rich habitat for a variety of shrimp, crab, fish, razor shells and oysters, and supports numerous rare and endangered species, but it also provides economic prospects for the five coastal communes of Giao Thủy, a rural district in Nam Định Province. Here, the community is comprised of small-scale fishermen and farmers in aquaculture and agriculture, who contribute collectively to a network of food cultivation.

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Local farmers of Giao Thủy invite Cindy to assist in weighing fresh clams. © Chelsea Rochman

With trash flowing into the estuary from the Red River and marine debris washing up from the ocean, the park is becoming increasingly vulnerable to plastic pollution. Potential threats to the park include microplastics coming in from ocean currents, a growing human population and burgeoning tourism industry. Previous research on the park has also identified various challenges for the sustainable management of its valuable resources.

For these reasons, the Centre for Marinelife Conservation and Community Development (MCD) has raised concerns about the state of litter in the park. MCD is a leading Vietnamese nongovernmental nonprofit organization with extensive work within the Red River Delta, and Ocean Conservancy is excited to partner with an organization that has demonstrated expertise and success in bringing together local and national government, the private sector and other NGOs. We collaborated with MCD and also the Vietnam Administration of Seas and Islands (VASI) to conduct a baseline assessment of the sources, fate, and effects of marine debris, including microplastics, in this region.

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Rachel and Chelsea standing on debris at research site © Cindy Nguyen

Fortunately for us, we had sunshine and only light rain during the week of field research. The on-the-ground work involved counting and categorizing all the litter we found within our research sites, as well as taking samples of sediment to measure microplastics. To begin understanding where debris may be coming from, we had selected key locations along the shorelines and tidal flats of the estuary and mangrove forest, at the mouth of the river and upstream along the Red River. We also counted crab holes at each site and measured the canopy cover and diameter of mangrove tree trunks as potential indicators of how waste might be affecting flora and fauna in the park.

What were some highlights in our field research? Besides the fact that we were located in this amazing corner of the world, we enjoyed the learning and sharing of information between our teams. When in the field, we paired up in working teams of two—Chelsea with Nguyễn Văn Công (MCD), myself with Ngô Thị Ngọc (MCD) and Rachel with Mai Kiên Định (VASI). Ocean Conservancy hoped to build capacity in MCD and VASI by transferring our science and methodology on how we research marine debris. Likewise, Công and Ngọc gave us insight into the debris we found and explained why some items were more common than others. Định, who is local to the province, shared his understanding of the land and lifestyle of farmers in the area. After long hours out in the field, we continued the conversations at nearby restaurants where we cooled off and dined on fresh seafood—including farm-raised clams, freshwater fish and jellyfish.

What were we not prepared for? Finding ourselves knee-deep in mud, amongst clams and sort-of-friendly crabs. Stumbling upon a graveyard of dead mangrove trees, tangled in plastic bags and fish netting. On one site along the shoreline, spiders hanging out tree branches joined us as we counted hundreds of pieces of foam. Thankfully, park rangers from Xuân Thủy National Park helped us navigate by boat, foot and car to access all of our sites. Needless to say, the research was very successful thanks to everyone’s eager helping hands and enthusiastic spirit in the field!

What were some of our findings? Marine debris was found across all of the 19 locations we surveyed. The five most common items were plastic food wrappers, plastic bags, fabric pieces and pieces of plastic rope and fishing nets. Overall, increased amounts of marine debris led to a decrease in the health of the ecosystem, although this was only significant for the negative relationship between quantity of marine debris and health of the mangrove trees. The results definitely show a lot of potential for future work to follow up on these trends.

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Rachel, Định, and Ngọc counting litter on one of the research sites. © Cindy Nguyen

We appreciate that MCD is first and foremost committed to making this work and learnings accessible to the public. In a conversation that Công and Ngọc led with Giao Thiện commune, we learned from fishermen about the ways in which pollution leads to the degradation of their land and harms not only people, but the ecosystem as a whole. I especially appreciated that everyone at MCD was eager to converse with me in Vietnamese as they answered my questions. As a Vietnamese-American only somewhat proficient in the language, I felt very much empowered to practice the vocabulary of environmental conservation in my mother tongue.

Ocean Conservancy hopes that this case study will inform local stakeholders to determine specific solutions addressing the vulnerability of Xuân Thủy National Park. We also envision that future research will advise national stakeholders as they develop a long-term strategy for Vietnam’s coastal wetlands. While there are still major gaps in the research that make it difficult to track environmental stressors and ongoing changes within the park, Vietnam is taking major steps to protect its wildlife and coastal communities.

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The entire team – OC, MCD, VASI, and Xuân Thủy National Park. © Rachel Giles

Written by Cindy Nguyen (Roger Airliner Young Marine Conservation Fellow) in collaboration with Dr. Chelsea Rochman, assistant professor at University of Toronto (UofT), Rachel Giles, graduate student at UofT, and Nguyễn Văn Công, representative at Centre for Marinelife Conservation and Community Development (MCD).

To Flush or Not to Flush – That is the Question

Ever heard of “demon snowballs”? Likely not, and it is probably putting images in your head of something cold and wet. Well, these demon snowballs are generally wet – but are not formed by snow and are not wonderfully white. These “snowballs” are wet wipes, and are called demon snowballs by wastewater treatment plant operators because of the way they get stuck in wastewater infrastructure. How is this relevant to ocean lovers? Wet wipes are a common type of marine debris – entering the environment via untreated and treated wastewater.

Although you may throw your wet wipes in the trash can – which is the best thing to do with them – many wet wipes are marketed as “flushable.” Flushable, or non-flushable, wet wipes are manufactured as non-woven sheets of natural and manmade fibres – including cellulosic materials like rayon and/or plastics (Munoz et al. 2018). Wet wipes usually have a high wet-strength, because synthetic fibers retain their form, shape, and strength in a moist state. Maintaining their form, and being strong, are desired properties for wipe manufactures so the product will not fall apart while you use it.

When flushed, wet wipes enter the sewer systems, where they are assumed to move along with wastewater to treatment plants. However, their transport depends on various factors such as pipe diameter and slope, flow rate and velocity, plus the amount of product discharge.

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Wet wipes at a sewer outflow into creek

If a significant amount of flushable wipes are discharged into a sewer system over a short period of time (a few hours), they will accumulate in drains, forming large “white” balls (a.k.a., demon snowballs), and lead to potential sewer backups. Holiday weekends, such as those in summer where people congregate, are an example of times when the amount and frequency of discharge at a single location may increase due to families and friends visiting each other. Likely not something you think about when you convene for a family weekend at the beach!

When we flush our products down the toilet, it absorbs and blends with other waste we send via our households such as food waste, fat, oil and grease (called FOG by plant operators), shampoo, human hair, and cosmetics. When flow is intermittent and low as our household plumbing, flushable wipes settle in our sewer pipes, accumulate over time, and can cause back-ups followed by sewer overflows. At treatment facilities, wipes clog and damage wastewater equipment such as screens, pumps, grinders, mixers, and sensors that require complete replacement or extensive repairs – hence demon snowballs.

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Example of pump blockage from flushed wet wipes

As examples, in England and Wales, approximately 4,000 cases of pipe blockages and property flooding are reported each year (Jeyapalan 2017). In the USA, 400,000 basement backups and 50,000 sewer overflows are documented per year (USEPA 2001). The City of Toronto, Ontario has approximately 10,000 calls a year for reported blockages. Unfortunately, wastewater utilities from around the world have been reporting that wipes are responsible for most pipe blockages and pump clogs in sewer networks. These reports have been published as a series of articles in various languages, and in well-known newspapers such as New York Times (Caron, 2018), The Guardian (UK), and the National Post (Canada).

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Barry Orr holds a mass of wet wipes from a pump station

Consumers assume that “flushable” products must have been tested rigorously for their compatibility with household plumbing and sewer systems. In contrast, there is actually no standard definition of what is flushable, and no standard method to assess flushability. Wastewater engineers are trying to work with governments to help define technical characteristics of flushable products, so that we can clearly differentiate the products that are truly “flushable” from those that are not.

For now, to keep our plumbing “snowball free”, we must not treat wet wipes – whether they say “flushable” or not – like toilet paper. Their size, strength and material composition prevent them from breaking down in wastewater systems, and even if they break down, they may contribute to microplastic pollution in the environment. The bottom line – stop flushing wipes.

Blog written by Barry Orr, spokesperson for Municipal Enforcement Sewer Use Group (MESUG), of Ontario and Faith Karadagli, Associate Professor of Envrionmental Engingeering at Sakarya University, Turkey.