For 25 years, Torontonians have been waking up on a spring morning, hopping into a canoe and paddling their way down the Don River as part of the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority’s Paddle the Don. While the charity event provides participants with a natural adventure in an urban environment, it also helps raise awareness about the health of the Don River, and the important role it plays in the city and surrounding region.
At this year’s event on Sunday, conservationists at the University of Toronto led by freshwater and marine ecologist Chelsea Rochman, assistant professor in the Faculty of Arts & Science's department of ecology & evolutionary biology – in cooperation with the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup – will build on that momentum by hosting a public litter cleanup along the route.
Participants, who register to join the trash cleanup, will descend on locations along the river’s edge to collect waste found on the ground to prevent it from ending up in the river and ultimately Lake Ontario. It's an opportunity to educate the public about watersheds and plastic pollution.
A fervent advocate for public education on environmental pollution – particularly plastics in marine and freshwater ecosystems – Rochman is a frequent commentator regarding improving policies towards waste management. She spoke to U of T's Sean Bettam about Paddle the Don, and the impact of a single cleanup effort.
U of T's Trash Team will use the opportunity to educate the public about waste literacy (photo by Diana Tyszko)
How did the idea for tying a cleanup to Paddle the Don come about?
We are interested in increasing waste literacy. I think one thing people don't realize is how our watersheds connect to our lake, and how littering in a neighborhood 1 kilometre away can still contaminate the lake. Litter in our streets travels down the storm drain, into the river and flows to Lake Ontario.
We wanted to do something along the river to relay this message. Collaborating with Paddle the Don seemed perfect since a lot of people will already be coming out that day to celebrate our city's most populated watershed.
You’ll be tracking what’s collected to get a sense of the types of litter found locally. What might be done with that information?
Understanding our litter or doing a waste audit will tell us if there are some products that are more commonly littered than others. We can then think about strategies to reduce that litter.
For example, if we find a lot of straws, we might consider a campaign that promotes the responsible use of straws – such as people having to ask for them rather than always being given one. This will reduce the amount of straws that become waste. Or if there are a lot of cigarette butts, we may increase signage around the city and waste receptacles for them.
By collecting the data, our volunteers will be contributing to citizen science. This is the first of an annual event we plan to hold that will tell us how much trash there is, what it's composed of and how that changes over time as we continue our program.
Toronto introduces new public trash bins every few years, though they seem to break and overflow quite often. Are we making it too difficult for people to put litter in its place?
I don’t think we are making it difficult for people, but I think as we aim for an economy with less to landfill and more recycling or composting, we end up with more bins and different homes for different types of products.
Thus, education and outreach is critical so that we, as citizens, don't contaminate the waste stream.
To keep litter out of the lake, we all need to do our part. That includes reducing our waste, putting it in the right place when we are done with it and helping clean it up.
What sort of impact can individuals and community groups make with a single event?
A lot. A litter cleanup prevents plastic and other waste from entering our lake, which prevents it from entering the food chain and contaminating wildlife.
Cleanups serve two very important purposes: they prevent marine debris in our Great Lakes, and they increase waste literacy in the community.
It’s almost beach, boating and fishing season. Do outdoor activities at this time of year significantly exacerbate the problem of littering?
Unfortunately we do see more litter on the beach with more people enjoying it. It's certainly true that one source of trash in our lakes is littering. More people in public spaces can and likely does lead to more litter on the ground. But with increased waste literacy, we hope to change this – even if only a little.
Can you offer any simple tips that people could embrace right now on a daily basis to ensure they are part of the solution and not the problem?
Yes, of course. These include actions along all parts of the life cycle of a product. We can reduce what we use and thus our waste. We can reuse products to keep them out of the waste stream. We can make sure we recycle and compost properly, and we can help clean up the mess in our environment – maybe by starting with our event.
We can also write letters to government asking for support in creating policies that help prevent litter and lead to a cleaner environment. The time is ripe, especially as Canada takes presidency of the G7 and governments are trying to decide how to take leadership on plastic pollution.