A Fight Against Plastic Pollution in the Toronto Harbour 

Find out more about a day in the life of a Fighting Floatables Research Assistant and how their work is helping clean up the Toronto Harbourfront while also informing positive change!

Early Morning

“Beep! Beep! Beep!” The sound of our alarms wakes us up for a brand-new beautiful day of fieldwork. We get dressed in our U of T Trash Team shirts and shorts because it’s a hot one, and lather ourselves in sunscreen (one of the most important steps in our morning routine).

“Ping!” There go our phones with our daily WhatsApp reminders from Ishani: “Heads-up everyone, today has risks of showers in the afternoon, bring your umbrella!” A big breakfast awaits us, providing fuel for a long day outdoors. We pack our lunches, fill our water bottles with ice cold water and head out the door.

Our team travels from various places across the Greater Toronto Area, so our commutes all look a little different. For some it will be hopping on public transit and for others it will be walking, biking or driving. Each day our group splits into two teams, the Waterfront (WF) and Outer Harbour Marina (OHM).

The WF team arrives at the Police Basin located near the marine unit on Toronto’s waterfront, and heads inside to start getting our materials ready for a new day of fieldwork.

“Hey look, it’s Porter!” says Katie as she races over to snap some pictures of the adorable guard cat we all love.

Members of our research team, Zoë, Katie, and Porter the cat.

For our OHM team, members arriving by TTC are dropped off at the nearest stop and then treated to a nature walk into the marina. Lovely flowers and birds surround us, and sometimes a few snakes are even spotted on the trail!

Eastern milksnake along the path to the Outer Harbour Marina.


With both teams safely at their sites, the fieldwork begins!

You might be wondering what our fieldwork is for? The U of T Trash Team has been running a project called Fighting Floatables since 2019. The project contributes to the Toronto Inner Harbour Floatables Strategy, a partnership between our organization and PortsToronto, Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, several City of Toronto divisions, with support from Swim Drink Fish, the Harbourfront Centre and Waterfront Business Improvement Area. This year, we had three different methods of trash trapping: Seabins – floating trash cans that pump water to draw in nearby debris from the water’s surface, LittaTraps – mesh baskets that sit inside the stormwater drain and prevents litter and other debris carried by stormwater from entering the stormwater system, and Skimming – long handheld nets to physically collect floating anthropogenic debris in critical areas. The goals of this project include tackling the plastic litter in the harbour, characterizing the waste to determine the core problems, and informing both the public and policy development!

First, we put on our life jackets and head to the docks to begin the first of our two waste characterization methods: simple waste characterization. This method involves walking along the docks and stopping by each of the Seabins. We use our pike poles to grab the bins and carefully bring them on to the docks. “Wow, this is a heavy one!” says Kat as she asks Ishani for help lifting it out. After successfully pulling the bin out, we hook a luggage scale onto the handle for a weight measurement. “Hold it… a little longer… ok got it, the weight is 6.84 kilograms.” Now it’s time for a very important step – data entry! Using the Data Trapper app developed by our very own U of T Trash Team, we enter all the necessary data from each bin. We start the entry by choosing the appropriate location and type of trash trap. After this, we enter information such as the weather in the past 24 hours (Did it rain? Is it windy?), the weight of the bin, and a picture of it with all the contents.

Fun Fact: As pictured above, some of our bins have ‘diapers’ in them – a small pad added to the Seabins in order to soak up oil runoff from boats at the dock!

With data collection complete, we carry our bin full of organic matter and trash to the closest garbage can and correctly dispose of all the debris before weighing our empty bin to get an accurate estimate of how much we collected. Finally, we place our bin back into its base in the water. “Give it a few seconds… perfect its bobbing up and down… let’s head to the next one!”

Now it’s time for skimming! We grab our handheld nets and walk over to our skimming location for the day, Peter Street Basin, a location full of anthropogenic debris and sewage overflow.

At some of our skimming locations, there tends to be so much trash that we must set a timer or else we could spend hours cleaning. “Set the timer for 45 minutes, let’s do this.” We do our absolute best to grab all the large anthropogenic debris in sight, this includes things like foam, cardboard, plastic bags, and bottles. At Peter Street Basin, we have another animal friend, a turtle that we fittingly named Peter.  “Hey look, it’s Peter the Turtle, be careful skimming around him!”

At some of our skimming locations, there tends to be so much trash that we must set a timer or else we could spend hours cleaning. “Set the timer for 45 minutes, let’s do this.” We do our absolute best to grab all the large anthropogenic debris in sight, this includes things like foam, cardboard, plastic bags, and bottles. At Peter Street Basin, we have another animal friend, a turtle that we fittingly named Peter.  “Hey look, it’s Peter the Turtle, be careful skimming around him!”

Unfortunately, we see lots of organisms trying their best to live among anthropogenic debris that fill their habitats, reminding us why we are outside hard at work.

“Could you help me get that water bottle there? It’s a bit far,” says Yuying as she asks Kat for help. “Of course!” replies Kat. She squats down, bends towards the fence, and reaches as far as she can, “almost got it… a little bit further… got it!”

Katie, a member of the research team, skimming at Harbour Square Park.

Some of the highlights of our days, at both locations, are the lovely animals we get to see. “Look, a group of puppies are following us! They must want to help with trash trapping duty,” says Ashlyn.

After collecting as much anthropogenic debris as possible, our timer goes off. “Okay let’s wrap up and start the characterization process!” announces Yuying. We weigh our bucket full of anthropogenic debris and then piece by piece we count and characterize each item. Before wrapping up, we dispose the trash we collected into the nearest trash can and weigh the empty bucket to determine the weight of anthropogenic debris collected.


We grab a seat in the sun and enjoy the beautiful views of Lake Ontario as we take a lunch break by the water. “Oh my gosh, an American Mink!” exclaims Yuying at OHM. “Oh my gosh, run, it’s an angry swan!!” says Ashlyn at WF.

After a break, we carry out our second method of waste characterization: detailed waste characterization. Every day, at each site, one of our Seabins gets this in-depth treatment.

We follow the same initial steps of weighing the full and empty bin and then we dump the contents out (onto a tarp of course!). We spread all the plant material out and collect every piece of ‘large’ anthropogenic debris (anything bigger than a toonie) we can find. Sometimes we find something interesting and new, “Anyone need a candle?” Kat asks as she pulls it out of the pile. As we work through the massive pile, one of us characterizes and tallies all of our finds. “Today we have: 16 cigarette butts, 4 plastic bottles, 8 straws and a fatberg, gross!”

Fun Fact: Fatbergs are masses of toilet paper and wet wipes that combine and congeal in the sewer with oil and grease.

After this, we begin characterizing small anthropogenic debris (anything smaller than a toonie). We scoop up some of the remaining debris into a bucket. For this step we use our “french press” sieve technique (not meant for coffee). First, we use a high-pressure hose to fill our buckets with water and then we wait for the small pieces of plastic to rise. Plastic has a much smaller density compared to water which is what allows it to float. Next, we use our “french press” sieve to push all the plant matter down, so that only the small plastic pieces are left at the top. We then carefully tilt our buckets into another smaller sieve to release all the water and collect just the small plastic. We repeat this process two more times, to make sure we get every possible piece of anthropogenic debris. “The water looks much cleaner, I think we are good to go!”

Porter, the police cat, has come to help with his tiny paws.

Based on how much anthropogenic debris is collected in our small sieve, we either characterize the whole pile or we subsample. “Today looks like a subsample day, that’s a whole lot of microplastics,” Ashlyn points out. We take our small pile back to the tarp and spread it out. Each of us grabs a tweezer and we get to work picking out every piece of plastic and classifying them.

“Pellet, pellet, fragment, pellet, film, film, foam, fragment, foam…”

After this tedious task, we collect our ‘clean’ anthropogenic debris in Ziploc bags and weigh them. This gives an accurate measurement of how much anthropogenic debris our Seabin truly collects. It also allows us to determine which of our Seabins are in critical trash overflow areas.

Ziploc bags full of small anthropogenic debris collected from Seabins across multiple days.

Every few weeks, we get a special visitor and today is one of those lucky days! Emily, a sculpture artist and Arts and Visual Communications Specialist for the U of T Trash Team, comes by to collect all the plastic and organic debris from our day of work. “Hey everyone! Wow, looks like I’ve got a whole bunch to pick up today!” Emily is taking all of the plastic and the plants that we collect after we’ve sorted them to create a public art installation to draw attention to our trash trapping efforts and the role of plants in filtering the microplastic we find”.

“The Kicking Plastic’s Butt! campaign posters looks great, Emily! I spotted one on the streetcar the other day!” Ishani says.

Once everything is done, it is time to clean up! “I’ll grab the hose!” says Mary, before rinsing off the tarp. We double and triple check everything is safely put away and grab our belongings. After saying goodbye to the staff (and pets) at each site, we start our trek home!


After a busy day, Zoë and Ishani arrive at their respective homes and transcribe the team’s data sheets. They enter and double check tallies, weights, photos, before checking back in on the teams with an update on their success! “Great job today, everyone! We collected 2,395 pieces of microplastics as a team today!”

You might be wondering what the ultimate goal of this data collection is. By keeping a tally of every piece of anthropogenic debris collected throughout the season we can gain valuable knowledge about the amount and types of anthropogenic debris found in the harbour. With this information we create a data summary that is released to the public and decision-makers to inform future research and policy change to combat the trash problem on Toronto’s Waterfront. This year’s policy brief was just released and you can check it out here!

Before getting ready to do it all over again, we reflect on any important tasks for the next day, and make sure we get a good night’s sleep for another full day fighting floatables. “Let’s check the bins at Pier 6 and Dock B tomorrow to make sure they’re working. Tomorrow looks like another hot day, so get some rest! Can’t wait to do it all again!”

Research student wearing U of T Trash Team t-shirt, with a reminder that everyone can make an impact.

Written by members of the 2022 Fighting Floatables Research Team.

Katerina Carozzi is a 2nd year undergraduate student at the University of Toronto studying Biology, Immunology and Physiology.
Yuying Chen is a 4th year undergraduate student at the University of Toronto studying Biodiversity & Conservation Biology and Mathematics.
Ishani Sharma is a 3rd year undergraduate student at the University of Toronto studying Environmental Science, Biodiversity & Conservation Biology.
Zoë Ungku Fa’iz is a 4th year undergraduate student at U of T studying Materials Science, Chemistry and Forest Biomaterials.

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