Chicago River Trash Trap

Thee Chicago River Trash Trap is the first instream litter collection technology of its kind deployed in the Chicago-Calumet river system. Floating in the Main Stem of the Chicago River, the trap is the latest addition to Friends multi-pronged approach to a Litter Free Chicago-Calumet River system, making the river cleaner for people and wildlife. The Trash Trap is hosted by Wendella at their boat dock located near the iconic Wrigley Building at Michigan Avenue.

How it works

Deployed in July 2023, the Trash Trap, made by Seabin, is about the size of a standard garbage can. It draws water and debris in from the surface using a submersible water pump, trapping litter inside a catch bin while the water is pumped back out. The catch bin, which holds up to 44 pounds, is checked each day and emptied as needed. 

Typically, trash trap technology is deployed in marinas where the water levels are more stable. The Wendella team made a few modifications to make the trap more resilient to the unique attributes of the river system such as the fluctuations of the river’s height, particularly during heavy rainfall. This included fabricating a dock, installing a ladder to the seawall, and adding an electrical outlet to power the trap’s pump. In the future, they intend to explore ways to power the trap with solar energy. 

Data Collection

This innovative technology does more than just remove litter from the river. It provides the opportunity to identify the composition of litter, use the data collected to inform good policy for reduction strategies to address the persistent problem of litter and encourage new behaviors.

Teamwork makes this all possible. The Wendella staff collect litter from the trap and set it aside to start drying. Then, Loyola University's Professor Tim Hoellein and his students in the biology department sort and characterize following the protocols established by the International Trash Trap Network, led by the Ocean Conservancy, which formed in 2017 to increase waste literacy and reduce plastic pollution in ecosystems.

Professor Hoellein serves on our Litter Free Task Force which brings businesses and nonprofits together to create resources, share information and promote events, behaviors, and policies toward creating a litter free river system. “A big part of our problem locally is food and beverage packaging getting into the river,” said Professor Hoellein. “I am really encouraged by the Trash Trap; we can join the data generation and contribute to the bigger picture of trash  - which is really a global problem.”

His research shows 80 percent of trash in the river is some kind of plastic, and 80 percent of that plastic is from food packing such as cups, bottles, and other degraded plastic fragments.

After decades of action and advocacy, major dumping is not ubiquitous in the river system as it was years ago but smaller litter still persists and plastic and food related waste abound. "I’ve worked on the Chicago River for 35 years and it’s a lot cleaner than it used to be. You just don’t notice that much litter in the Main Stem anymore. Still, we are removing at least 40 pounds a week,” said Mike McElroy, president of the Chicago Harbor Safety Committee and Director of Marine Operations at Wendella. “I’m elated how well the trap works, and it’s drawing attention from Wendella customers, boaters, and kayakers; people are curious about it.”

Professor Hoellein notes, “We are not going to trap our way out of this problem but it’s something we can do that’s positive. It generates information and starts a discussion that can lead us to preventative measures, which are ultimately the solution.”

To learn more and hear our Executive Director discuss the Chicago River Trash Trap check out this feature segment on WGN News. 

The trap is the result of a collaboration among Friends, the Mars Wrigley Foundation, Wendella, The Wrigley Building, and MWRD Commissioner Marcelino Garcia.