The Great Lakes are awash in plastic. A new project is using trash-trapping technology to get rid of it
Two years ago, Mark Fisher was out kayaking on Lake Superior with his family when they decided to stop on a remote island for lunch.
But what should have been a pristine picnic spot, far from busy marinas or industry, turned out to be covered with pre-production plastic pellets, washed up on the beach after a train derailment years earlier.
Fisher was disturbed. But, he says, those pellets represent the tip of the plastic iceberg.
“On an annual basis, roughly 20 million pounds of plastic are finding their way into the Great Lakes on both sides of the border,” he said. “We found [that] quite alarming.”
In his role as president and CEO of the Council of the Great Lakes Region, Fisher is now helping to lead a project to collect some of that plastic from marinas around the province using two kinds of trash-trapping technology: Seabins and Littatraps.
Among the project’s partners: environmental NGO Pollution Probe, the University of Toronto’s Trash Team, and the Boating Ontario Association.
The Seabin is a floating garbage can invented in Australia that sucks in trash, while Littatraps are installed inside storm drains to catch refuse before it enters waterways.
By the end of October, Fisher says, 23 marinas in places as far-flung as Thunder Bay, Trenton, Midland and Spanish, Ont. will have a Seabin of their own, with 14 of them adding a Littratrap as well.
“This is by far the single largest deployment in the world of Seabins and Littatraps, particularly in a freshwater environment,” said Fisher.
Pilot project launched in Toronto last year
The seeds of the new initiative began in Toronto, where three Seabins were installed as a pilot project by Ports Toronto at the Outer Harbour marina and Pier 6 in 2019.
Working with the University of Toronto’s Trash Team, the agency says it is now capturing about 3.59 kg of trash per bin per day.
“Ports Toronto is thrilled with the program’s results,” said spokesperson Jess Pellerin.
Microplastic fragments smaller than a toonie are by far the most common items coming out of the Seabins, says Pellerin, followed by “clear plastic packaging, hard plastic fragments from takeout containers or plastic tubing and cigarette butts.”
Since the Seabins were first installed, it’s been U of T Trash Team co-founder Chelsea Rochman’s job — along with team members like U of T student Cassandra Sherlock — to comb through what comes out of them.
Rochman is working on guidelines for classifying the waste that will eventually be put to use in communities around the province.
“Any type of trash trap does one thing really well… divert our plastic waste out of the Great Lakes,” she told CBC Toronto.
“But it also can involve policy because what we find tells us something about the source.”
Take those pre-production pellets that Fisher found all over an island beach in Lake Superior, which Rochman says also turn up regularly in the Toronto Seabins after blowing away from industrial sites.
“This type of information could inform regulations to keep those pellets out of stormwater,” said Rochman. “And this is something we’re exploring right now with the Chemical Industry Association of Canada.”
Rochman’s team will analyze the trash as it comes back from the Ontario marinas over the next month, with hopes of compiling the new data by November.
An awareness-raising ‘success story’
Both Fisher and Rochman are hopeful about what the ripple effects of the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup Initiative could be.
For Rochman, part of that excitement comes from the practical impact of removing plastic pieces large and small from so many locations.
“The sheer amount of litter that we’re going to capture and divert out of the Great Lakes will make a measurable difference” on wildlife, she said.
Rochman, who has seen how much attention and conversation the Seabins generate in Toronto, is also hopeful that kind of community-wide conversation will take place in all participating marinas, calling the expansion of the new technology a “success story.”
In future years, Fisher explained, education events will be held at the marinas, but due to COVID-19, they’ll stick with online awareness campaigns for now.
The problem of much of the plastic that churns around the lakes “can be solved by re-educating people about the importance of recycling” and making sure there’s better litter disposal at beaches, parks and marinas, he said.
Fisher also hopes that as time goes on, more potential partners will jump into the project and install Seabins of their own.
“The goal is to really focus on Ontario this year, and then we also want to expand it across the border to U.S. marinas.”