Every litt(er) bit counts

Community cleanup at Sir Casimir Gzowski park

Flanked on the lake by nearby swans, ducks and geese, I met up with the University of Toronto Trash Team at Sir Casimir Park for our first cleanup of 2022. This beautiful Lake Ontario waterfront park is a heavily trafficked area, with a children’s playground, several picnicking areas, and walking and biking paths throughout. Twenty-eight volunteers showed up – some for their first ever cleanup, some their second and some their umpteenth. Amongst our team were staff, students, researchers, family and friends, all with a shared interest for picking up trash and helping make our environment cleaner. With hats on head, hands in gloves, trash and recycling bags in tow, we divided into several groups and took to the park and surrounding shoreline!

The most common (and smallest) item found.

Over the course of 3 hours and span of 1 km, we collected approximately 6 kg of litter filling 6 trash and 4 recycling bags. Can you guess what our most collected item was? Lots and lots of small plastic pieces! Many were at one time part of a larger item that when littered in the environment broke down into smaller pieces called microplastics. Over time, they will break down even smaller. These tiny microplastics are harmful to the health of our environment, animals and possibly us and they are EVERYWHERE – even in our blood.

The majority of plastic items found during the cleanup were small in size, hidden in plain sight.
© Mira Ghosh

Unsurprisingly, cigarette butts were again among the top three items collected (these are also found as common items in both our previous cleanups and local Seabins). They were also the top item collected during the International Coastal Cleanup, with almost 1 million butts collected in 2020!  Cigarette filters have many toxic chemicals that can be released or wash out into the environment. Our team also encountered related trash items, like cigar tips and vaping pen parts.

Littered cigarette butt filters are plastic pollution.

Did you know that over 4 trillion cigarette butts are thrown away as litter globally each year and that these contain plastic? We need to see more action to prevent cigarette butts from littering our environment. That is why we are starting a big educational campaign about cigarette butts along our waterfront. All cigarette butts we collect in cleanups are sent to TerraCycle’s Cigarette Recycling Program – where the butts will be repurposed into new products. The City of Toronto also has receptacles on litter and recycling bins for cigarette butt disposal and collection to minimize litter along our waterfront. This summer we intend to add more!

Cleanup volunteer Emily displays the many cigarette filters and cigar tips found in less than an hour. © Leah Chibwe

A closer look at small plastics.

Although the water in the lake was clear of any visible plastic, the shoreline was covered with plastic litter. An interesting find on the beach were many tiny, circular pieces of plastics – called pre-production pellets (sometimes referred to as nurdles). These pellets are used in the production of plastic items, and are an environmental concern because they have been reported on many shorelines along the Great Lakes. One possible reason for the presence of plastic pellets at this shoreline are the local factories found just upstream of Sir Casimir Park. To help prevent this source of plastic pollution, we are working with industry and government to divert plastic pellets from industry and prevent them from entering our watersheds. Learn more here.

We all have a role to play

As the hours of cleanup passed by, I found myself getting overwhelmed by the amount of litter on the shore. Compared to the trash in the park, the items on the shore were harder to collect as the fragments were comparably smaller and embedded in the sand. I wondered whether my efforts would actually make a difference. The reality is that we are drowning in plastic pollution. While it would be easy to throw our hands up in the air and walk away, we don’t – this is our planet. Collectively, we removed over 4,000 items of trash, including styrofoam pieces, food wrappers, bottle caps and straws, just to name a few. I believe that the dent we made is significant.

“The reality is, we are drowning in plastic pollution”

We all have a role to play – individually it might seem small, but collectively? Oh, the difference we can make! Whether it be getting involved in raising awareness and knowledge on plastic pollution, participating in local cleanups, setting aside a couple of weekends a month to pick up trash in your neighbourhood with friends or family, advocating to our governments for a clean environment, or not walking past that food wrapper you come by in the park – instead choosing to stop, pick it up and put in the trash. “Everything great in the world only happens because someone does more than she/he has to.” – Hermann Gmeiner

Blog written by Leah Chibwe, a proud U of T Trash Team volunteer and postdoctoral researcher studying pollutants in the environment.

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