Trash-trapping Seabins are cleaning the Great Lakes

The words "Beat Plastic Pollution" written in the sand By Kanittha Boon/Shutterstock

After a successful pilot in Toronto harbours, trash-trapping Seabins are at more than 20 ports and harbours in the Great Lakes. The Seabin pumps water into the device, storing caught trash.

“This is one of our largest projects in the world,” says Gautier Peers, the business development representative at Water Products & Solutions, the North American supplier of Seabins. “So far, over 30 Seabins have been purchased by the Council of the Great Lakes Region.” This is part of a regional lake clean-up initiative. Project partners include the Council of the Great Lakes Region and the University of Toronto Trash Team, a group of students, researchers, and volunteers who aim to use their science to educate the community, increase waste literacy, and inform policy decisions.

The Trash Team was co-founded by Chelsea Rochman, an ecology professor who has been studying plastic pollution for more than a decade. The team helped create the scientific data that informed Canada’s proposed six-item plastic ban. Now, working with Georgian Bay Forever, a local charity, the team installed washing machine filters in 100 homes to diminish the number of microfibres (a type of microplastic) that end up in lakes. They found the filters to be “about 90 per cent effective.”

While there is little data on how microplastics directly affect human health, “we do see microplastics in our drinking water,” Rochman says. Fish also eat these plastics which can tear their gut linings or cause them to starve and die. Large plastics commonly entangle wildlife, too.

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What’s in our Lakes?

“Lake Ontario is the most polluted of the Great Lakes, followed by Lake Erie,” Peers says. In Toronto, the big stuff (“bigger than a toonie,” Rochman says) is usually consumer waste such as plastic food wrappers and straws. Smaller litter, like pre-production plastic pellets, tends to be the “industry signature.” These “five-millimetre discs” used to make larger plastic items are washing up on shores and in Seabins. Rochman is working with the Chemical Industry Association of Canada to tackle the problem at the source.

“I don’t think one is worse than the other,” Rochman says of big and small plastic waste. “I think it’s more about preventing them both.”

“We are finding so many cigarette butts in the waterways,” says Melanie Abdelnour, the director of Canadian NGO Deep Blue Cleanup. “They are the most common litter found in the Seabin.” Since the pandemic began, she has noticed a surge of disposable masks, too. Deep Blue Cleanup is using the team’s protocol to measure the debris gathered in the Ottawa Seabin.

“The litter that Seabins collect unfortunately mostly still goes back to landfill, as the majority of the items caught are not recyclable,” says Mahi Paquette, the chief operating officer of the Seabin Foundation. “The Seabin technology is a great way to monitor the health of the lakes and to capture litter whilst doing so.” Seabins also help communities understand priority items in their region.

That said, “the only way to clean up the lake is to ‘turn off the tap’ of litter at the source. Litter prevention is the long-term solution,” Paquette says. “Water knows no boundary, and from the moment plastic and pollutants enter the water, they are then made a part of the water cycle.”

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How can we help?

“In order to reduce the release of plastic into the environment, we have to have systemic change in how we produce, make, and waste this material,” Rochman says. Extended producer responsibility and mandating recycled plastic content in new plastics are great starting points. Education, formalized shore clean-ups, and repurposing items are solutions, too.

Can lakeside homeowners and cottagers install Seabins of their own? “Absolutely,” Paquette says. “As long as people can empty the Seabins and they have access to electricity.”

“Plastic pollution issue is pervasive, and it’s global, and it’s everywhere,” Rochman says. When citizens start to “think about ways in which we can divert waste from our landfill bin into our recycle bin… we can make a measurable difference. We know what we need to do, and we all need to help.”

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