Several dozen chemists and their colleagues spent a couple of hours one Saturday this fall cleaning up a west end park in Toronto as part of what can only be described as a Green Chemistry grassroots movement. The group descended on Trinity Bellwoods, near Dundas and Ossington, where they picked up some 15 kg of assorted trash, which ranged from cigarette butts to discarded hypodermic needles and even the odd piece of furniture.

“Everyone came out, we had a good time, with some snacks and networking, and did something good for the environment,” says Matt Gradiski, who helped organize the event with Kevin Szkop.

Gradiski and Szkop are both PhD students in Chemistry at the University of Toronto, where they co-chair the student-run Green Chemistry Initiative (GCI), which promotes sustainability in chemistry research and education. The organization has been active since 2012, mounting activities such as trivia nights, laboratory waste awareness campaigns, and a video series describing the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry.

They became interested in cleaning up a local piece of green space by connecting GCI with the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. This national conservation movement, which as first conceived as a modest beach cleanup at Vancouver’s Stanley Park in 1994, has grown into a nation-wide program conducted in collaboration with conservation organizations such as Ocean Wise and World Wildlife Fund Canada. Shoreline helps smaller groups like GCI by providing a Web-based platform to raise public interest in local clean-ups and encourage volunteers to take part. So far some 850,000 people have taken part in more than 23,000 of these events, altogether collecting more than 1.7 million kg of trash.

GCI’s take from Trinity Bellwoods is now part of that total, a milestone that reminds Gradiski that “green” has a wide range of applications.

“GCI connects us in our academic life, but this was eye-opening,” he concludes. “It brought us out into the community and engaged us there.”