There is a stream of trash in the murky waters of Lake Ontario near the Toronto harbor. There is a piece of styrofoam against the device. It tumbles over the edge. The styrofoam could have entered a portal to an underwater world with the tendrils of marine plants circling the waste. The garbage dump is a more important destination than the device would have you believe.

A professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto has been working with a team to capture trash in Lake Ontario with bins like these. The Seabin is powered from shore and uses a motor to pull in waste from the ocean and then store it in a basket.

Seabins and filters are being used in a cross-border project dubbed the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup across the Great Lakes region. They were joined by aquatic waste-collection drones and beach-cleaning robots in September to remove some of the 22 million pounds of plastic that enter the lakes each year.

The waste can't be removed 24 hours a day.

The amount of litter we have out there needs more power than we have. Even though local groups have organized beach clean ups for decades, people can't remove waste 24 hours a day like the devices can, or pick up the tiny pieces that machines are able to capture.

The overflowing municipal trash bin along the sidewalk is one of several sources of the trash. Sewage systems, industrial spills, recreational boating and beach waste all end up in the lakes. In one bin, there are a lot of things entwined in the tendrils of marine plants. There are small pieces of plastic poking out between the leaves.

Bright colored plastic floats among leaves and other debris in green murky water
Bright colored plastic floats among leaves and other debris in one of the Great Lakes
Image: Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup

40 million people rely on the lakes as their primary drinking water source, and this waste breaks down, turning into tiny pieces of plastic and debris, which are eaten by fish, sucked into surrounding water treatment plants, or pulled to shore. Toxic chemicals can be released when plastic is eaten by fish. Hundreds of pieces of plastic are expected to be found in large sport fish. Microplastics have been found in drinking water in the region and many water treatment plants are ill-equipped to remove them. Researchers still don't know if the risk of consuming microplastics for humans is worth it.

Each piece of trash becomes a data point once it is captured by a researcher. Students haul out the bins to count, classify, and dispose of their stuff during the summer. They know how many foam containers we collect. Students have counted slices of deli meat, old shoes, and even a coconut in Seabins this summer.

28 grams of waste is captured by the Seabins each day. It will sound like a small number because it is plastic. The weight equates to a couple hundred to 2,000 pieces of plastic. The amount of plastic equivalent to 7,000 plastic water bottles is only in the 12 bins the university oversees, which make up just a fraction of the devices deployed at 45 marinas.

Seabins like the ones in the Toronto harborfront can be found at 44 other locations from May to November. Marina owners or local organizations watch these bins. The partners at the participating sites weigh and dispose of the contents of the bins as they fill up. Many marinas have catch basin baskets that sit inside the storm drain to catch waste before it enters the lake system. Over 74,000 pieces of trash were captured by the project's technology between 2020 and 2021.

A white robot on a sand beach
A promotional photo of the beach-cleaning BeBot.
Image: The Searial Cleaners

A waste collecting drone and beach-cleaning robot were added to the project in September. The Searial Cleaners built the devices that collect waste from lakes and beaches. The company's chief executive says that the robot is a key public engagement tool. She says that the robot needed to be sexy and fun in order to raise awareness.

The technology is still reacting. Human choices about how much plastic to produce, consume, and throw out are at the center of the Great Lakes trash problem. One of the project's main funders says changing them will be key to any long-term solution. She says that the technologies alone are not going to solve the problem. The data we collect is critical because it provides an understanding of the extent of the problem

If large macroplastics wind up in capture devices in a certain area, it can indicate that communities nearby may not have easy access to disposal facilities. Alternatively, if small plastic pieces used to build other products, called preproduction pellets, are more common, that can indicate that somewhere upstream, a manufacturer may be improper disposal of its trash.

A white and blue floating robot in blue-green waters
The PixieDrone collects plastic.
Image: The Searial Cleaners

Whether that means starting a new educational campaign, meeting with policymakers, or advocating for new industry mandates, the captured waste informs the group. A new Ontario law requires the foam used to build floating docks for cottages and marinas to be fully enclosed so it doesn't break down into the water. The group contributed to the proposed legislation to include mandates for filters on washing machines to prevent microfibers from entering the sewage system in Ontario.

When we go to government policymakers, when we go to industry in the region, and say, 'Listen, we've got a problem here and we need to fix it,' having that local data helps us in those conversations.

Trash traps in the water is something we don't want to have to do.

The researchers are hopeful about the new technology. No initiative is going to be able to pick up 22 million pounds of plastic out of the Great Lakes every year, but a project that can motivate public and political action can make a difference, says Timothy Hoellein, a biology professor at Loyola University Chicago. The Seabins have a small footprint. It could make a difference.

Lessons from the strategy have begun to reach beyond the shores of the Great Lakes. The International Trash Trap Network was created by the University of Toronto and the Ocean Conservancy to help create more trash trapping methods. Trash traps collect waste.

The goal of achieving a future where the Great Lakes are not dumping zones for waste is part of it. She says that they don't want to have trash traps in the water.

The waste problem continues and so the floating trash cans continue to spin. A piece of purple plastic edges toward the Seabin and falls into it on Lake Ontario. Millions of plastic have been captured from the lakes.