As the sun shimmers on Toronto’s Harbroufront, pedestrians enjoying a summer saunter are largely unaware of what’s lurking just along the water’s edge.
Ten sea bins have been deployed by the self-named University of Toronto Trash Team. If you manage to find one of their baskets in the water, there’s a good chance it’s barely staying buoyant. That’s because it’s weighed down by the contents inside.
University of Toronto (U of T) Environmental science student Ishani Sharma pulls out a syringe followed by an onslaught of plastic. From food wrappers to beverage containers, to bottle caps and cups, each piece reveals the harsh reality: Lake Ontario is under siege.
The bigger pieces are easy to track and record. The shocking discovery, researchers say, is the amount of microplastics in each bin. As she dumps a bin onto a tarp, Sharma estimates it’s only a quarter full.
“In this pile, it’s probably close to1,600 — 1,600 microplastics that we can count,” she told CTV National News.
That tally is from one single bucket, after only 24 hours in the water. There’s another nine baskets along Toronto’s inner harbour. That’s more than 10,000 pieces of microplastic pulled out each day from just 10 bins, no bigger than a basketball net in diameter.
The program’s co-founder, Chelsea Rochman, is an Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the U of T. She says they’ve been pulling “game fish” out of Lake Ontario. When they cut the fish open, the mounting ecological crisis is brought sharply into focus.
“We find hundreds of pieces of plastic in the gut of one fish and we also find pieces of microplastic in the fillet — the part that you and I eat,” Rochman said. “So some people are eating microplastic.”
But it doesn’t end there. Rochman works with an engineering lab at the U of T that tests samples from local drinking water on planes.
“We have looked for microplastics in that drinking water, we do find microplastics in drinking water. Around the world more and more documents are coming out and showing that microplastics are in our drinking water,” she told CTV News.
Nearly every piece of microplastic pulled out of Lake Ontario is tracked and recorded by the dozens of U of T students participating in the study.
From food wrappers to water bottles, to caps and cups, each piece reveals the harsh reality of plastic pollution.
After flushing out as many of the microplastic pieces as possible, student Zoe Ungku Fa’iz details how she tackles the tedious work.
“We’ll sort through all these tiny pieces, and categorize them from plastic pellet, to pieces of foam, fragments, or even sometimes we’ll still find large pieces of (plastic) film,” she explained.
The so-called trash team have traced thousands of these pea sized plastics to the drains on factory floors, some of which are cities away.
“When it becomes part of the storm water system, that drain leads directly to a river that leads directly to the lake,” says Rochman.
Everything pulled out of the lake by the team is shared with government officials, as the team pushes their evidence to bring legislative change.
The Canadian Government banned tiny beads found in soap products in 2018, though with no federal regulations on microplastics or the industries producing them, the Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault admitted to CTV News that more needs to be done.
“There are things we need to be doing in collaboration with other levels of government,” Guilbeault said.
He added that “through the Canadian Council for the ministers of the environment, we are working on a joint strategy to fight plastic pollution, but I agree microplastics are an issue and that’s an issue we want to tackle.”
Nearly every piece of microplastic pulled out of Lake Ontario is recorded.
Speaking one-on-one with CTV News, Guilbeault also noted the federal government’s upcoming ban on some single use plastics, while it may help, won’t solve the growing concern around microplastics.
The growing problem in the Great Lakes may be harder for the public to ignore in Toronto.
Trash team member and visual artist Emily Chudnovsky is collecting the waste pulled out by the team each day. But instead of using the bigger pieces, she’ll be piecing together the microplastics for a large sculpture that will float along the Harbourfront for all to see.
Chudnovsky hopes “it will make people think about the small as well as the big (plastics).”
“Here at the trash team we’re taking a sample of a much larger problem and collecting the data. I hope my sculpture will cause people to stop, pause and take notice,” she said.