Seabins making strides in removing microplastics from Lake Ontario

A Seabin is photographed at the launch of Phase Two of the PortsToronto Seabin Pilot Program at Pier 6 on Toronto's waterfront. Photo credit: CNW Group/PortsToronto

A pilot project and collaboration between PortsToronto and the University of Toronto (U of T) collected about 85,000 small pieces of anthropogenic debris from Lake Ontario in just over a four-month period in 2020, with the use of floating litter-capturing Seabins technology.

Through the use of three Seabins — essentially floating garbage cans that suck up litter as it floats by — the team primarily captured hard plastic fragments, plastic film, and pre-production plastic pellets. Specifically, bottle caps, cigarette butts, plastic straws and bags were the most common waste collected from the lake.

“We discovered that floating algae and plant material, common in shallow and sheltered marinas, collect and accumulate small anthropogenic litter,” the PortsToronto team says in its research. “Acting as a natural mesh, algae and plant material help capture the smaller size fraction of plastic litter.”

PortsToronto owns and operates the Seabins, while the U of T Trash Team does research in Lake Ontario to inform where it would be useful to locate the receptacles in the Toronto Harbour.

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Seabins were invented in 2014 by Australian surfers who were concerned by the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean. They work by moving up and down with the natural flow of water, collecting all floating debris. Water is sucked in from the surface with a submersible water pump and passes through a catch bag inside the Seabin. The water is then pumped back into the harbour, leaving litter and debris trapped in the catch bag to be disposed of properly.

As unrelated teams in other parts of Canada strive to undertake similar projects, the U of T team has also sought to standardize the way data is collected for the marine waste and have even created an app called Data Trapper, which allows users to test methods and share their data.

U of T assistant professor Chelsea Rochman is with the U of T Trash Team, a science-based community outreach group that was formed to “increase waste literacy and reduce plastic pollution”.

Rochman is also with the department of ecology and evolutionary biology in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

Seabin fact sheet
Seabin facts (click to enlarge). Image credit: PortsToronto

In addition to the Seabins projects, the Trash Team is experimenting with releasing plastic bottles with GPS trackers into the Toronto Harbour with the hope of monitoring their travel throughout Lake Ontario. The tracking data could help scientists learn more about where litter travels, how it ends up on the shoreline, and why it accumulates in certain areas, dubbed “litter hotspots”.

PortsToronto, a government-business enterprise that owns and operates Billy Bishop Airport, the Port of Toronto and the Outer Harbour Marina, has helped to fund the Rochman Lab.

Both teams hope to use data collected from the projects to inform policies around preventing plastic pollution and potentially work with local industry to prevent plastic pre-production pellet loss to the Great Lakes.

Key members of the Trash Team include Susan Debreceni, program lead of volunteer engagement and community programs, and Rafaela Gutierrez, program lead of social science and educational programs.

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