Trash-Free Waters Program builds partnerships to curb marine waste

It is one thing to try to educate restaurants, shops and consumers about why litter is a bad idea for the environment. But, it is a giant leap forward to show them the data -- documentation of the types of trash that end up in canals, rivers, and Tampa Bay.

The Environmental Protection Agency designed the Trash-Free Waters Program to do just that. Cities and counties participating receive a grant to set out trash traps that collect litter from waterways, which is then documented in a detailed database to determine what is getting tossed and what materials are involved.

The next important step is to establish partnerships with those in the community whose businesses or neighborhoods contribute to the mess and get them to agree to be part of the solution, says Joe Whalen, who heads the program for the Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP).

According to the EPA, the number one way to prevent trash pollution is to reduce the amount of trash created in the first place.

TBEP received a $500,000 grant from the EPA in late 2020 and is working with its partners -- Keep Pinellas Beautiful, Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful, Keep Manatee Beautiful, and the Osprey Initiative -- to deploy Litter Gitters and other trash traps to assist in this data collection. The devices float on top of the water and collect surface litter as it flows past.

“The thing that separates this effort is the Escaped Trash Assessment Protocol, the EPA tool to collect and track amounts of trash to create a litter profile that looks at the condition of trash, type of trash being collected and the brand of trash or how long it has been sitting in the watershed,” Whalen says. “It helps create a more comprehensive profile of the litter in the region.”

Some 75-80% of land litter ends up in the water, says Al Antolik, the Trash-Free Waters Program manager for Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful. “What this grant looks at is that there are more effective ways to target (culprits) without being confrontational or accusatory, to solve the problem. We can show the hard and fast data we collect and how we can solve the problems. You will see patterns in certain areas. There are more styrofoam containers or plastic bottles in some areas, while in others, straws and plastic shot glasses.”

Mobile, Alabama, implemented the program in 2018 and did the first large-scale Escaped Trash Assessment Protocol Data Collection. The Mobile Bay National Estuary Program is a coordinating partner with TBEP. That program is just now getting to the point it is reaching out to restaurants and other businesses to ask them to cut back on the amount of litter ending up in waterways.

“We want to show them the data,” says Jason Kudulis, restoration project manager for the Mobile program. “That is what we are growing toward. With Tampa, they can go up the stream.” For example, in some instances, a franchise fast-food restaurant may not have control over the types of containers they use. 

“If you are locally owned, you can choose products you use,” Kudulis says. “If you are a convenience store or a franchise, you don’t necessarily have that flexibility. We want to go upstream to the corporate level to get buy-in.”

It has been trial-and-error to figure out how to implement the program best and the consensus has been to place litter traps in smaller areas, such as near outfall pipes and canals leading to the bay, Whalen says. That way, it is easier to source the trash.

“It is very much a learning process,” he says. “Every time the EPA implements the grant in a new and unique watershed, there are lessons learned.”

Antolik agrees, saying Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful has had to move some of the trash traps to make them more effective. “We have a collection device at Ross Avenue in Tampa, a large stormwater outflow. You can see the difference in the water color when construction debris comes in or plastics from Columbus Drive and MLK. It never disappoints. We get a bushel or two bushels.”

He says volunteers go out twice weekly to collect the marine trash and add it to the database, which breaks it down very precisely. For example, they do not just record Styrofoam, but what type of Styrofoam and in what form. Cigar packaging is listed by brand name, as is the makeup of fast-food containers.

Whalen expects to have some useful data by late September to begin devising a long-term litter reduction plan.

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Read more articles by Yvette C. Hammett.

Yvette C. Hammett, a native Floridian and a graduate of the University of Florida, has spent much of her career as a professional journalist covering business, the environment, and local features throughout the Tampa Bay Area. She is an avid camper and outdoors person who has also been involved in local events for foster children and the elderly.