Belle Isle Conservancy tracks trash, aims to hold brands accountable

In 2022, volunteers collected over 8,000 pounds of trash on the island.
Volunteer Corey Blonquist, of Clarkston, sorts through the litter he collected from his kayak during the Belle Isle Conservancy’s monthly park and canal cleanup held Saturday, July 15. Photo by Jenny Sherman.

Volunteer Corey Blonquist brings his own kayak to pick up trash in the canals on Belle Isle. He’s one of dozens who turned out on a rainy Saturday to help Belle Isle Conservancy in its fight for plastic-free waterways this summer. 

“A friend first turned me onto this and now every time I’m available I try to make it out,” Blonquist told Planet Detroit. “I’ve seen bikers ride by as I’m kayaking and picking up trash and they’re like, ‘That’s awesome, I want to do that!’ so they come over and ask questions.”

The expanded citizen science program involves sorting and itemizing each piece of litter found on Belle Isle and in the surrounding Detroit River.

“This is the first time we’re collecting this degree of data,” Genevieve Rattray, director of sustainability and advocacy for the Conservancy, told Planet Detroit. “We’ve known for years how many pounds of trash we’ve been collecting, but this is the pilot year of sorting through it.”

The program is part of the Conservancy’s Keep Belle Isle Beautiful initiative, created in 2017 to counteract litter pollution at Detroit’s treasured 982-acre island park.

Volunteers at the Belle Isle Conservancy’s monthly park and canal cleanup held Saturday, July 15. Photo by Jenny Sherman.

Last year alone, volunteers collected and removed approximately 8,000 pounds of trash left behind by some of the island’s four million annual visitors. By taking their pollution tracking a step further, the Conservancy aims to use those data points to create a “littering personality” of the park and nearby waterways, hoping to one day leverage their research to bolster meaningful environmental stewardship legislation in Michigan and beyond.

“We intend to use it for policy eventually,” said Friends of the Detroit River community outreach coordinator, Kaylee Peterson. “It’s good information to know, especially to hold brands accountable.”

Among the most common items found during park cleanups, according to Rattray, have been plastic caps and water bottles, plastic grocery bags, ice bags, fast food trash and other single-use plastic or styrofoam food packaging, as well as what she calls “treasure trash” – colorful plastic pieces that are sorted out to create environmental impact art like the “Trash Fish” currently on display inside the Belle Isle Aquarium, composed entirely of plastic debris found by volunteers during the 2017 Belle Isle Spring Cleanup.

“Part of the reason why we designed [Keep] Belle Isle Beautiful was to have something meaningful that could make a difference here locally, regionally and globally,” Rattray said. “I look at it as ocean conservation at the local level.” 

With global plastic production doubling over the past 50 years, it’s expected that by 2050 there will be more plastic in our world’s oceans than fish, according to the World Economic Forum. On a local level, the outlook isn’t much better, with Alliance for the Great Lakes reporting “stunningly high” amounts of tiny plastic pieces in all five Great Lakes – posing a serious threat to the environment and public health.

“If you think of a plastic water bottle, it makes its way into the canals, makes its way into the Detroit River, it goes into the Great Lakes, goes into the world’s oceans, and during that time the sun’s hitting it; the chemicals are going out into the water and impacting aquatic life, breaking up into microplastics which harms aquatic life, but then also ends up on our dinner plates through the food system,” Rattray said. 

Genevieve Rattray, director of sustainability and advocacy for the Belle Isle Conservancy, stands in front of the “Trash Fish” mosaic, currently on display inside the Belle Isle Aquarium. Photo by Jenny Sherman.

“So we look at it as, we’re keeping Belle Isle beautiful of course – removing litter pollution – but then also keeping the same plastic pollution out of our waterways, and therefore out of our food chain.”

Conservancy staff and volunteers have found plenty of unusual items too, she said, including passports, cremation boxes, and even a few “things that make me blush.”

The program has received tremendous support from the community in recent years, attracting everyone from individuals and couples to families, friends and corporate volunteer groups. 

At the end of each cleanup, staff and willing volunteers lay out a large tarp to weigh and sort through all the day’s collected items using best practices from the Ocean Conservancy, Alliance for the Great Lakes and other partner organizations. That information is then shared on the Ocean Conservancy’s Clean Swell app, which collects similar litter pollution data worldwide.

As the program continues to grow, Rattray hopes that so too will its potential to strengthen environmental policy in Michigan – like the bill just introduced in March by Sen. Sue Shink (D-Northfield Twp.) that aims to repeal the state’s 2016 law banning local municipalities from restricting the use of single-use plastic bags. (Yes, you read that right; Michigan has a law banning the banning of plastic bags).

“I feel like if people come out and see the impact that they’re making, having that connection is what keeps people engaged,” said Rattray. “To me, everything needs to be collaborative. No one institution, organization, or country can do this; we have to be doing it together.”

And Blonquist will be there.

“I think the more people seeing it normalized kind of helps too, and it becomes more of a standard thing for people to plug into and volunteer for,” he said. 

The Belle Isle Conservancy will host two final data collection cleanups on Belle Isle this summer from 9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 19 and Saturday, Sept. 16. For more details on how to get involved/join a cleanup, visit


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