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.

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