A series of cleanups by GTA non-profit A Greener Future collected more than 119,000 bits of litter from Lake Ontario shorelines, including more than 1,500 pieces at three parks in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Founder Rochelle Byrne says the annual Love Your Lake program has documented an increase in plastic pollution, especially personal protective equipment (PPE).
The organization's volunteers conducted 266 cleanups between Kingston and Niagara Falls in May and June. Among the items found were over 500 pieces of PPE, which represents a 711 per cent increase in PPE litter since the group's 2020 findings.
In June, Love Your Lake retrieved 215 pieces of litter from Ryerson Park, 1,173 from Queen's Royal Park, and another 215 from Niagara Shores Park.
NOTL volunteers like myself have found a large number of masks elsewhere around town, so the scale of discarded PPE litter in NOTL is much larger.
“The more we use of something disposable, the more ends up in our environment,” said Byrne.
And while masks are likely not left behind on purpose, “They fall out of people's pockets or blow out of lid-less garbage cans.”
She urges people to dispose of masks securely.
Although some people feel safer wearing disposable masks, Canada's public health guidelines still recommend cloth masks. With two layers and a filter pocket, these reusable alternatives are a more environmental choice.
Luckily, fewer gloves were found this year, Byrne said.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, people were wearing gloves because they thought it would help,” but we now understand the low risk of COVID-19 transmission via surfaces.
“There's more litter from single-use items compared to previous years,” including plastic bags, cans, plastic lids, straws and cutlery, she said. This may be due to pandemic-restricted use of refillable containers at grocery and fast-food locations.
PRETTIEST TOWN? Niagara-on-the-Lake's Queen's Royal Park has been a Love Your Lake cleanup site since the program's inception in 2014 and to date volunteers have removed 10,000 pieces of litter from that beach alone.
“At Queen's Royal Park, there's lots of plastic pieces,” Byrne noted.
One common culprit: nurdles. These small pellets are melted down to make plastic products and packaging, but Byrne said many of them are spilled into the lake by ships transporting this raw material to manufacturers.
As for what litter is most prevalent, she said, “Number one is cigarette butts. They're absolutely everywhere.” Styrofoam and other plastic pieces are the next most common finds.
To raise awareness about plastic pollution, last year Byrne undertook a 430-kilometre paddleboard journey around Lake Ontario. While on the water, she could observe the condition of the lake up close.
“I thought I had a pretty good idea of how bad things were, but it's way worse than I thought,” she said. She found oily brown slime, slicks of pollution, really smelly areas, algae blooms and a lot of dead fish.
“I did paddle through areas where you could tell there was a sewage bypass: condoms, tampon applicators, chunks of toilet paper,” she said. “I'm really glad I didn't fall in.”
In fact, NOTL has a combined sewer overflow near Ryerson Park's Mississauga Beach. Because these systems use shared pipes for sanitary and storm water, they can overflow during wet weather.
“People have no idea that when they flush their toilet, it could end up in the lake,” Byrne said.
SHOWING THE LOVE: “Plastic pollution affects us all, whether we want to think about it or not. It's in our drinking water,” she said. Litter cleanups are just one way to take care of our vulnerable lakes.
“We can all do something,” she said. Pick up litter when you see it, avoid buying single-use plastics and support organizations that are fighting to protect our land and water.
She doesn't expect everyone to be an environmentalist, “That's not realistic.” But she is hopeful that solutions will arise when people from many different backgrounds make small changes and work together.
Local cleanups with A Greener Future later this year may be on the agenda of the Town of NOTL's environmental advisory committee. For more information, find the organization on Facebook @TheGreenerTeam.
Kyra Simone is a NOTL-born nature lover with a master's degree in biology. In her spare time, she advocates for sustainable change, picks up garbage, makes recycled jewelry, and transforms furniture bound for the landfill.