In the dark waters of Lake Ontario off the Port of Toronto, there is a stream of trash toward a round, tubular-shaped device floating in the water. A piece of white styrofoam bumps into the lip of the device. Then, in one fluid motion, he rolls over the edge. With tendrils of marine plants circling the waste, Styrofoam appears to have entered a portal to an undersea world. Instead, the device is a gateway to a less mysterious – but vital – destination: a landfill.
“It’s basically like a floating trash can,” says Chelsea Rochman, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto, who has worked with a team at the university picking up trash in Lake Ontario using bins like these since 2019. Shore, the device, called the Seabin, uses a motor to create a vortex that gently pulls floating trash from a 160-foot radius and then stores the trash in an attached bin.
Across the Great Lakes, which stretches from Duluth, Minnesota, to the US-Canada border in northern New York, dozens of Seabins are now working alongside rainwater filters on a transnational project dubbed the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup. In mid-September, they were also joined by water-waste-collecting drones and roving robots to clean beaches – all to remove some 22 million pounds of plastic that enter the lakes each year and help researchers like Rushman understand the Great Lakes waste problem.
People can’t remove waste 24 hours a day like machines do
“We know that the amount of trash we have needs more power than the power of the people we have,” explains Roschman. Although local groups have organized beach cleanups for decades, people cannot remove waste 24 hours a day as machines do, nor can they pick up the small pieces that machines can.
Standing on the shore of Lake Ontario, as Toronto trams rumble, he points to the overflowing municipal litter box along the sidewalk – one of the many sources of garbage. Municipal sewage systems, industrial spills, rainwater runoff, recreational boating and beach waste, and agricultural debris all end up in lakes, too. In one box, toothbrushes, tampons applicators, dental floss, shoe floss, eyeglasses, food scraps and syringes are intertwined in the tendrils of sea plants. Between the leaves, small plastic spots appear.
In lakes, on which 40 million people depend as their main source of drinking water, this waste decomposes, turning into microscopic pieces of plastic and debris, which are then devoured by fish, absorbed at surrounding water treatment plants, or pulled ashore or into the ocean. When fish consume plastic, it can release chemicals such as dyes and flame retardants, which irritate and damage the digestive system. In larger sport fish, such as lake trout or salmon, Rochman expects to find hundreds of pieces of plastic. Microplastics have also been used contained in the drinking water in the area, where many water treatment plants are not equipped to filter the small pieces. (The dangers of consuming plastic particles for humans remains unclearalthough researchers continue to investigate the potential problem.)
Once researchers like Rochman pick it up, each piece of trash becomes another data point. Every day during the summer, students pull out boxes to count, categorize, and dispose of their contents. “They know how many cigarette butts we collect, how many straws we collect, and how many containers of foam we collect,” says Rochman. Some days the fishing is even more surprising—students counted strips of beef, old boots, and coconuts once at Seabins this summer.
Seabins pick up 28 grams of waste, on average, each day. “It’s going to look like a small number because the plastic is light,” says Rochman. That weight translates to a few hundred to 2,000 pieces of microplastic, along with multiple pieces of larger waste. This summer, Rochman expects her team to remove as much plastic as 7,000 plastic water bottles — and that’s just in 12 bins overseen by the university, which are a fraction of the machines scattered at 45 marinas across the Great Lakes region.
From the northern shores of Lake Superior in Thunder Bay, Ontario, to the Port of Buffalo, New York, just a short drive from Niagara Falls, Seabins like those at the Toronto Harborfront are spread out at 44 other locations, typically operating from May through November. These funds are not monitored by researchers but by port owners or local organizations. Partners at participating sites weigh the contents of the bins and dispose of them while they fill and perform full waste attribute audits five to 10 times each year. Many marinas also have installed fishing trough baskets, called LittaTraps, located inside rainwater drains to catch waste before it enters the lake system. Between 2020 and 2021, the project’s technology captured more than 74,000 pieces of garbage, a number the team expects to increase as they continue to reach marinas and municipalities in the area.
In September, a beach-cleaning drone and robot joined the project’s fleet of waste collection technology. The devices, made by French waste-collection technology company Searial Cleaners, collect waste from lakes and beaches, and operate by remote control and autonomously. Mobile bots are also key tools for public engagement, says Claire Provider, the company’s CEO. “That’s why this bot needs to be sexy, cool, fun, and also have a cool name – these are very effective tools when it comes to raising awareness,” she says.
However, technology remains an interactive approach. Robots can help clean up lakes, but human choices about how much plastic to produce, consume and throw away are at the heart of the Great Lakes waste problem. Changing it will be key to any long-term solution, says Melissa de Young, director of policy and programs at the nonprofit Pollution Canada, one of the project’s main funders. “We do what we can to remove the plastic from the water, but we know that techniques alone will not solve the problem,” she explains. “The data we collect is really important because it first provides an understanding of the extent of the problem.”
If large, bulky plastics end up in capture devices in a particular area, for example, this could indicate that neighboring communities may lack easy access to disposal facilities or may not be aware of why proper waste disposal is important. Alternatively, if the small plastic pieces used to build other products, called pre-production pellets, or threads, are more common, this could indicate that somewhere upstream, the plant may be improperly disposing of its waste.
The captured waste then informs the group’s approach to local solutions, whether that means starting a new education campaign, meeting with policy makers, or advocating for new industry mandates. Last year, the team consulted on a new law in Ontario that would require the foam used to build floating docks for bungalows and moorings to be completely enclosed so that it does not dissolve in water. The group also contributed to proposed legislation to include powers of filters on washing machines to prevent microfibers from entering the sewage system in Ontario and stronger laws regarding pre-production plastic disposal in Illinois.
“When we go to government policymakers, when we go to industry in the area, when we go to others to say, ‘Listen, we have a problem here and we need to fix it,'” with having that local data, says Mark Fisher, president of the Great Lakes Region Council, an organization Bi-nationalism is funding the project as well, regional data is really helping us in those conversations in terms of getting people’s attention and really motivating them to do something.
“We don’t want to have litter traps in the water forever.”
Other researchers in the area are hoping for new technology in the lakes, too. No initiative will be able to collect 22 million pounds of plastic from the Great Lakes each year, but a project that could spur public and political action could have magnified results, explains Timothy Hollin, a professor of biology at Loyola University in Chicago. She worked on separate lake-cleaning projects but was not involved in this project. When it comes to Seabins, “their individual footprint is very small,” Hoellein says. “But on a team basis, it can really make a difference.”
With the success of the strategy in the region, its lessons began to reach far beyond the shores of the Great Lakes. Rochman and the team at the University of Toronto partnered with the environmental nonprofit group Ocean Conservancy to found the international Trash Trap Network, which works with groups from Fiji to Florida to help create more litter trapping strategies. Wherever litter traps capture waste, data collection follows.
This is all part of the goal of achieving a future where freshwater sources, such as the Great Lakes, are no longer litter areas, says Rochman. “We don’t want to have our garbage traps stay in the water forever,” she says.
But for the time being and for the foreseeable future, the waste problem still exists, and therefore the floating trash cans continue to recycle waste collection whirlpools. Back on Lake Ontario, a small piece of purple plastic — perhaps an old surgical glove or part of a food wrap — heads toward Seabin and falls in. It’s another piece of plastic picked up from lakes, with millions more to go.
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