Capturing Litter and People’s Imagination on Toronto’s Waterfront

The story of a shared vision to bring new waste capture technology to Toronto

Written By
Guest Blogger

This blog was written by Chelsea Rochman, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, co-founder of the University of Toronto Trash Team and Scientific Advisor to Ocean Conservancy; and Susan Debreceni, the Outreach Manager and co-founder of the University of Toronto Trash Team. 

It was a little more than two years ago when we independently discovered Baltimore’s famous Mr. Trash Wheel, a waterwheel that sits at the mouth of a river in Baltimore, gobbling up trash into its waste bin before it ever reaches the ocean.

At the time, Susan was working for Ocean Wise, helping to 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, we knew that having a trash wheel in Toronto would capture public attention and become the centerpiece for an education and outreach program to increase waste literacy (a better understanding of material use, consumption and disposal) in the local community and beyond. We met up with a shared goal to bring a similar wheel to Toronto, and without a clue about how to do it, began our journey.

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To get started, we started conversations with the inventors of Mr. Trash Wheel in Baltimore, as well as PortsToronto (who owns and manages several parts of Toronto’s waterfront). Shortly afterwards, our friend joined the team, Dr. Rafaela Gutierrez, who is 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 new member of the Mr. Trash Wheel family. Our team of three then gathered a team of 25 undergraduate and graduate students who all shared the same passion for increasing waste literacy.

At first, it was looking like the Don River would be the ideal location for such a device. Unfortunately, though, the Don River was about to begin a large revitalization project to re-naturalize the mouth of the river and provide critical flood protection, making it challenging to add any additional construction in the area. Ultimately, through the results of this study and countless meetings and phone calls with a growing list of stakeholders, our 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, we 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—small waste bins that sit in harbor slips and capture waste as it floats by. And then, as luck would have it, PortsToronto’s Sustainability Committee had also begun an active discussion about Seabins and connected with the Seabin Project to learn more. What an incredible coincidence! Soon, two bins were installed 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. They also generated several media interviews and removed 2,000+ pieces of plastic from the marina in a 24-hour period. We were all thrilled, and as a result, we were off to the races and our dream of a trash wheel at the mouth of the Don River evolved into a plan for several working Seabins across the Toronto waterfront.

Based on the success of the initial trial, two additional bins were installed in Toronto’s Inner Harbour at Pier 6 in the early weeks of October this year. 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 Councilor of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation came together to “meet” the bins. We shared preliminary litter data with the group, all while enjoying hot coffee (in reusable mugs) and Beaver Tails (a famous and delicious Canadian pastry!).

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 it was headed. Over the last two years, we created the U of T Trash Team—a dedicated and passionate team that includes local volunteers, undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs and dedicated staff—to increase waste literacy in our community and reduce plastic in our ecosystems.

As a group, our team has developed new waste literacy school programming, scheduled to begin this year in fifth-grade classrooms across the greater Toronto area. Our team also runs community outreach programming—including two annual cleanups in collaboration with the Toronto Region Conservation Authority and Ocean Conservancy. Additionally, the team focuses on solutions-based research (including a pilot project installing lint traps in the washing machines of 100 homes in the small town of Parry Sound) to divert microfibers from Lake Huron, as well as working with businesses to achieve zero plastic pellet loss to Lake Ontario. And finally, the U of T Trash Team is proud to continue partnering with PortsToronto to find new ways of litter-ally trapping trash on its way out to Lake Ontario, preventing it from contaminating our waterways, our fish and our local drinking water.

Want to learn more about us? Please visit our website.

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