Toronto

Toronto needs your help in its quest to end plastic pollution

Toronto's city council wants to know what you think should be done about single-use plastic such as straws, containers and utensils that are finding their way, not just into Blue Bins and landfills, but also rivers and streams and even Lake Ontario.

More than 650 kg of plastic litter enters Lake Ontario from the Don River annually, researchers say

A small sample of the thousands of plastic items collected by a University of Toronto research group recently. (University of Toronto "Trash Team" supplied)

Toronto's city council wants to know what you think should be done about single-use plastic such as straws, containers and utensils that are finding their way, not just into Blue Bins and landfills, but also rivers and streams and even Lake Ontario.

"These are items you would see at a food court or a mall or even a grocery store," said Vincent Sferrazza, director, policy, planning and support, Solid Waste Management Services.

This week city staff launched an online survey and webinars to help the city formulate a Long Term Waste Management Strategy. 

"Which items would residents like us to target for reduction and how would they like us to do it? Would they like us to do it voluntarily or would they like us to take a mandatory approach? Or would they like us to do it through some sort of promotional or educational campaign?" said Sferrazza.

Vincent Sferrazza says this week city staff launched an online survey and webinars to help the city formulate a Long Term Waste Management Strategy with respect to single-use plastic products. (City of Toronto, supplied)

Mandatory tools vary from fees such as the five cents plastic bag charge to an outright ban as set out in a bylaw, or a sign required to be displayed suggesting alternatives to single-use plastic, he said. Voluntary tools would include incentives or rewards, or educational material that would be distributed by the retailer, he added.
 
"It could be a combination of both [mandatory and voluntary tools]," said Sferrazza.

He said 10,000 surveys have been completed so far and the consultations will continue until the end of the month. The results will go before the Public Work Committee of the new city council in 2019.

There's mounting evidence that microscopic remnants of these single-use or takeaway items are ending up in the food we eat and the water we drink.

A University of Toronto research group recently studied what was in the Don River's outflow and catalogued a mountain of plastic pollution, which likely came from upstream sources.

Each year Ports Toronto places a boom across the mouth of the river to capture as much litter as possible before it enters Lake Ontario, but much of it goes under or around the floating barrier.

University of Toronto ecologist Chelsea Rochman holds a jar of seawater from San Francisco Bay. Embedded in the top layer of seawater are bunches of confetti-like specks, many of which are likely microplastics, she says. (Dave MacIntosh/CBC)

U of T's "Trash Team" decided to see how much plastic and what kind is destined for open water. 

Dr. Chelsea Rochman, a U of T professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, led a team of students to sort through a mountain of trash that built up behind the boom from June 29 to July 16. 

From what they catalogued, Rochman's lab estimated that more than 650 kg of plastic litter enters Lake Ontario from the Don River annually. 

This would include more than 21,000 pieces of Styrofoam, 12,500 large plastic fragments, 4,000 water bottles, 2,700 bottle caps, 1,300 food wrappers, 1,100 balls and more than 900 straws.

A Toronto Ports boom placed across the mouth of the Don River this summer to trap debris before it flows out into Lake Ontario. (Submitted)

"Lots of plastic straws, lots of bottle caps and quite a bit of just plastic fragments," said Rochman.

"What we are interested in, in our lab, is the small stuff, the microplastic. And we know from sampling in the lake and in the streams that we find this microplastic there and in the fish. So when it comes to the danger we are really interested in whether or not there is toxicity from these microplastics when they are eaten by animals."

Rochman says anything that stops plastics upstream will prevent it from becoming broken down in to smaller more difficult material to contain. She says with so many major rivers flowing directly into Lake Ontario —  Highland Creek, Rouge River, Etobicoke Creek, Mimico Creek, the Humber and Don Rivers — it's important to stop plastic pollution from washing downstream in the first place.

"It's creating awareness so people are thinking about the products that they buy and where they go at the end of their life and creating a waste management system that captures those materials and doesn't necessarily put them in a landfill," she said.

Members of the University of Toronto's "Trash Team" sort through thousands of bits of plastic captured this summer using a Ports Toronto boom across the mouth of the Don River. (Submitted)

 
And once trash hitches a ride on streams and rivers, plastic pollution can not only contaminate freshwater and marine ecosystems in Lake Ontario, but it also eventually ends up in the St. Lawrence River and out to sea.

About the Author

Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One.