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!).

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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.

Plastic Pollution is Chemical Pollution

How preventing and removing plastic debris mitigates chemical pollution in our oceans

Turtles tangled in fishing nets, whales washed ashore with stomachs full of plastic bags. These are images we, unfortunately, see far too often. But what about the threats you cannot see? Plastic debris is not just a physical threat to marine life, it’s a chemical threat too.

Once in the marine environment, plastics can absorb chemical pollutants from surrounding waters and transport them great distances as they move around with ocean currents. When animals eat plastic, these chemical pollutants can leach into their stomachs, causing toxic effects. Many of these chemicals have been banned from production due to concerns about human and environmental health. However, some are so persistent in the environment that they are still found today.

Plastic products also contain chemical additives such as flame retardants, UV stabilisers and colorants which are added to the plastics during manufacturing. In our ocean, these chemical additives can leach into surrounding waters—posing another potential chemical threat to marine life.

In a recently published paper, we estimated the amount of chemicals that enter the ocean within common single-use plastic items and estimated the amount of chemical pollutants that can be removed from the environment via cleanups.

2018-07-20 14.49.34We looked at some of the most common plastic items found on beaches during the International Coastal Cleanup: beverage bottles, bottle caps, styrofoam foodand drink containers, cutlery, grocery bags, straws/stirrers and food wrappers. Using International Coastal Cleanup data, the average weight of each item, and estimates of mismanaged plastic waste in 2015, we calculated the total weight of each item that entered the oceans in 2015. We then used the percent weight of chemical additives in each item to estimate the mass of chemicals that entered the ocean as a consequence of this plastic debris.

We estimate that combined, these seven plastic items contribute more than 87,000 metric tons of plastic debris to our oceans and carry with them 190 metric tons of 20 different chemical additives. If plastic pollution continues to increase, this value could almost double to 370 metric tons of additives by 2025. This might not sound like very much, but these seven items account for only about 1% of the estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic entering the oceans every year!

Furthermore, we estimated how plastic cleanups contribute to chemical cleanup by removing those absorbed chemical pollutants. For this, we compared coastal and open ocean locations using Hong Kong and Hawaii as coastal case studies and the North Pacific and South Atlantic gyres as open ocean case studies. Here, we focused on Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) because they are commonly found in plastic debris, despite having been banned for decades.

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© HANNAH DE FROND

To estimate total chemical load on plastics in each location, we multiplied the mass of microplastics (g/m2) found in each area by the mass of PCBs found on microplastics (ng/g) in each area. Our results showed that chemical cleanup is more effective on shorelines compared to the open ocean, removing 85,000 times more PCBs in a stretch of coastline in Hong Kong than the same size area of the North Pacific gyre. This might come as a shock, particularly as the gyres are well known to contain large amounts of plastic debris, however, the amount of microplastic per square meter is generally much greater on the shoreline. Although the concentration of PCBs might be high in some open ocean locations, the important factor is how much plastic can be removed per unit area. The more plastic removed, the more chemical removed.

Thus, if we can prevent plastic from entering the environment and cleanup what is already there, we can also mitigate chemical pollution. This reiterates the value of reducing our plastic footprint and participating in coastal cleanups. Cleanup of plastic pollution goes beyond what the eye can see. Cleanup of plastic pollution is also cleanup of chemical pollution!

What Does Your Washing Machine Have to do with Microfibers?

New research suggests microfiber emissions from the wash can be reduced with new technology

Synthetic microfibers are just one of many types of microplastic pollution; however, microfibers are one of the most common types of microplastic pollution that we find in the environment.

Where do they come from? There are likely many sources of microfibers to the environment, and they include clothing, furniture, carpeting, and cigarette butts.

Picture1They are ubiquitous. We find these tiny fibers in samples from headwater streams, rivers, soils, lakes, sediments, ocean water, the deep-sea, wildlife, arctic sea ice, seafood, drinking water and table salt. In our own samples from the Laurentian Great Lakes, our research lab sometimes find more than 100 microfibers in an individual fish. Such widespread exposure raises concerns about effects to wildlife and human health.

But, there’s good news! There are simple solutions to help reduce the number of microfibers that enter our environment each day. Some of these include changing the way we do our laundry–YEP–our laundry.

When we wash our clothing in the washing machine, little bitty fibers come off into the wash water. This is just like when fibers come off our clothing in the dryer and collect in the lint trap. YES, microfibers are indeed a major component of laundry lint! In the washing machine these fibers exit our homes with wash water and travel to a nearby wastewater treatment plant. There, many of them will settle into the sewage sludge, but some will remain in the final treated wastewater effluent that is released directly into local watersheds, lakes and oceans. Although washing our clothes in washing machines is just one source of microfibers to the environment, we know that it’s a significant source. For example, in the city of Toronto, we estimate as many as 23 to 36 trillion microfibers may be emitted to Lake Ontario watersheds each year!

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So, coming back to the solutionswhat can we do about it? Our research group wondered the same thing and decided to test multiple mitigation strategies for washing machines to see just how well they captured fibers in the wash, diverting them away from the environment.

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What did we find? We found that technologies available on the market today work! Upon washing fleece blankets with and without a Lint LUV-R after-market filter (a, pictured above) or a Cora Ball (b, pictured above), we found a significant reduction in microfibers in washing machine effluent. The after-market filter reduced microfibers in washing machine effluent by 87% and the Cora Ball by 26%.

Picture2Our study suggests that these technologies are one effective way to reduce microfiber emissions to the environment. While more studies are needed to understand the contributions of microfibers from other sources and pathways to the environment, we know that washing machines are one pathway for microfibers to reach the environment. Why not help reduce emissions now by changing up your laundry habits today?

For more information, please read our paper published this year in Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Written by Dr. Chelsea Rochman, assistant professor at the University of Toronto and Scientific Advisor to Ocean Conservancy

No Silver Bullet Solution to Plastic Pollution

Evaluating the impact of multiple mitigation strategies to help stem the tide

Plastic pollution has become so pervasive that it is found in seafood, bottled water, beer, table salt and even the air. Hundreds of animals become entangled in discarded plastic debris and fishing gear. Ingestion of plastics by marine organisms can hurt or kill them, and may also be acting as a pathway for the transfer of harmful contaminants through food-webs, with biological implications for all life affected. The economic costs of plastic pollution affecting tourism, fisheries and shipping sectors are estimated to be at least $8 billion USD annually.

Currently, the problem of plastic pollution is being met with a suite of mitigation strategies, such as single-use bans, improving recycling capacity and waste management, substitution of products with “eco-friendly” alternatives and more. These actions are currently being implemented at the national level but the problem is so enormous that the international community has recognized that more action is needed, and urgently. Still, little work is being done to evaluate the impact of these many mitigation strategies being proposed and implemented, and how their impacts will vary in different economic and societal contexts. Without this understanding, we risk wasting vast quantities of money, time, and social and political capital in attempting to preserve the integrity of the world’s ecosystems.

We are the Plastic Pollution Emissions Group

That’s how the Plastic Pollution Emissions Group (PlasticPEG) came about. Based out of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), the work that we are doing will contribute to improving our understanding of the impacts of these reduction strategies, and inform governments of the most effective ways to contribute to improving the health of our oceans.

With a group of experts from across the world, including some from Ocean Conservancy, we aim to contribute to this knowledge gap by providing science-based evidence of the most effective strategies to reduce the leakage of plastic into our oceans. Our work will build on the inclusion of Plastic pollution in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and feed into an international agreement to establish a coordinated and effective strategy to drastically reduce plastic emissions into the environment.

How we will make a difference

We are conducting an evaluation of the impact of several plastic pollution management interventions. These include plastic-use reductions, broad-scale investments in waste management infrastructure, the implementation of a circular plastic economy and the cleanup of existing post-consumer plastic waste, including abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear from the environment.

We are using ecological modelling techniques and an impact forecasting approach (sometimes referred to as ‘wedges’) to evaluate mitigation strategies at both the country and global level. This means that we can measure how much an action—such as single-use plastics bans—will have on reducing the leakage of plastic into the environment compared to if we did nothing (business as usual). Our analyses will support and inform countries to help them choose the best strategies to reduce plastic pollution, within the bounds of their resource capacity, social context and uniquely local sources of plastic debris.

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Figure 1: Illustrative example of what we aim to assess by combining and comparing different plastic emissions reduction strategies and scenarios. © STEPH BORRELLE

If we are to achieve meaningful reductions of plastics in our oceans, we need to have a toolbox of effective solutions that can be implemented at multiple geographic scales, economies and levels of governance. The aim of the Plastic Pollution Emissions Group is to help find those solutions in a meaningful way.

For further information, please visit plasticpeg.org or follow us on Twitter @PlasticPEGroup.

Written by Steph Borrelle, a Smith Postdoctoral Fellow in Conservation Biology and Dr. Chelsea Rochman, an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto and Scientific Advisor to Ocean Conservancy

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.