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.

 

Keeping Canada’s Most Urbanized Watershed Clean

Second Annual “Cleanup the Don” a success

On May 5th, 2019, more than 100 dedicated volunteers grabbed bags to participate in the University of Toronto’s Trash Team’s 2nd Annual Cleanup the Don, a collaboration with the Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) and Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) coordinator in Canada, the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. In conjunction with the TRCA’s annual Paddle the Don event, Cleanup the Don brought members of the community down to the Don River to traverse and conserve one of Toronto’s most important watersheds.

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Trash Team member Sam explores the Don River by paddle © UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO

Stretching nearly 24 miles and spanning more than 88,000 acres, the Don River is one of the largest rivers entering Lake Ontario. The Don River Valley is a popular area for recreational activities, including biking, running, fishing and canoeing. The area is also home to a wide variety of wildlife, including some endangered species like the Redside dace fish and American chestnut tree.

Habitat loss and chemical pollution are major threats to urbanized watersheds like the Don River. Estimates from our most recent University of Toronto Trash Team survey of the river suggest it is also an important route for hundreds of pounds of plastic litter from urbanized areas (like the Greater Toronto Area) to enter the Great Lakes every year.

This year for Cleanup the Don, 107 volunteers spread out across five sites from E.T. Seton Park to Corktown Commons, a six-mile stretch. In all, we removed approximately 550 pounds of plastic litter from the shorelines.

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Top 6 items found during this year’s Cleanup the Don. © UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO

The top six trash items closely tracked what volunteers find during the ICC every year, including cigarette butts (25%), plastic food wrappers (13%), plastic bags and other single-use plastics. We were also surprised to find some unusual items, including a tent and VHS tape cover.

A selection of litter collected during this cleanup was also used to create a mural depicting the Don River Valley. Repurposing litter into artwork can be a great way to raise awareness about how plastic pollution affects your local environment.

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Litter collected during the cleanup was used to create a mural depicting the Don River Valley. © UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO

Since most plastic pollution comes from land-based sources, understanding the sources of plastics in the environment can help us “turn off the tap” or stop the flow of plastics to local waterways like the Don River. Single-use plastic restrictions (such as plastic bag bans) and improvements in waste management can help reduce the number of these items that end up in the environment. Below are five simple actions that individuals can make to help keep plastic from entering the Don River watershed and other waterways:

  1. Reduce your use of single-use plastics! Opt for more eco-friendly alternatives like reusable shopping bags and metal/glass straws.
  2. Clean up your local watershed. Join a local cleanup or start your own. Join Ocean Conservancy on the world’s largest single-day volunteer effort on behalf of the ocean, the International Coastal Cleanup. This year it’s September 21st, 2019. Tips on how to organize a cleanup in your area are available through the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup website.
  3. Know your bins! Be aware of which items go in green, black and blue bins. For guidance in the City of Toronto, check out the Waste Wizard app!
  4. Support legislative or community action to reduce single-use plastics and improve waste management in your area.
  5. Educate friends and family about the plastic pollution problem.
Written by Trash Team members Sam Athey, Bonnie Hamilton and Dr. Chelsea Rochman.

Discovering the East Don

Cool temperatures didn’t stop our team from keeping rivers clean

On November 10 our team joined Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) to clean a portion of the East Don Trail in Charles Sauriol Conservation Area. You might not think of organizing a cleanup in November, but litter season is year-round so it was important for our team to head to a local shoreline in the city to make a difference. It was a chillier cleanup than usual however the results indicated trends we are all too familiar with, single-use items scattered on the shoreline, many of them plastic.

Our team of 20 were eager to get out there and see what type of items we could remove, and we were amazed at the quantity of what we found. Our team also filled out a brand audit to uncover not only what items were most commonly found as litter, but (when identifiable), which brands came across.

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Trash Team members Susan and Rafaela carefully document litter found

A total 138 lb of litter was removed, and our top 10 items included a selection of single-use plastic items we see at many shorelines in the city, including cigarette butts and many items such as bags, bottles and food wrappers. Coffee cups were also found during the cleanup, which might not sound like a plastic material, but due to their lining of polyethylene we consider them as such. This lining means coffee cups are a challenging item to recycle and instead should swapped for reusable alternatives, like a stylish travel mug!

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Most common litter items found along the East Don. © UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO

Thank you to TRCA for inviting us to join your team for the day, we had a really had a fun time and enjoyed getting to know another section of the Don River watershed. We’re already looking forward to more cleanups with our team and members of the public.

To hear the TRCA perspective on this cleanup, please visit their blog. While you’re there, visit their website to learn more about the East Don Trail project. To lead your own cleanup, visit the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup to register your event.

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

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.