Retiree Bob Luce is on a one-man mission to remove trash from the Hillsborough River

Once a week, 77-year-old Bob Luce launches his inflatable kayak on the Hillsborough River in Temple Terrace, and over the next two to three hours he uses litter grabbers of various lengths to pick trash out of the water. When he comes across an enchanting wildlife scene, turtles basking on the bank, a limpkin on the hunt, or a mama alligator with her newly hatched babies, he takes a picture.

“Photography is my drive. It makes me want to come out here,’’ he says.

For 14 years, he’s been removing trash from the river and Sweetwater Creek before that. He knows it’s a never-ending task. It’s just getting worse: the steady increase in population means a steady increase of trash in the river, he says – more plastic bottles, plastic bags, Styrofoam take-out containers and the like.

“It’s useless in the sense that I’ll never catch up. The litter will be there again in two weeks as if I didn’t do anything two weeks before,’’ he says. 

On a hot Wednesday morning, he is getting ready to inflate his kayak. He launches from Riverhills Park in Temple Terrace, an especially scenic part of the river.

“So it’s gotten to the point that I’m not actually doing this for people, humanity,” Luce says. “I’m actually doing it for the critters – and when I say critters I mean the birds, the turtles, the gators – and for me, because I like the beauty of the river.”

He wonders if school kids are taught the problems of litter and what it does to the environment. It doesn’t seem so to him. People will sit in their cars next to the river and toss the trash out their windows, even though a trash can is a short distance away, he says. Or they throw litter out the window while driving along a city street. It gets washed into storm drains at the next heavy rain and makes its way to the river, then the bay and beyond.

The retired computer programmer takes a 42-gallon trash bag and two 18-gallon bags with him for his trips on the river. He brings a gallon of ice water and, for lunch, a can of salmon.

For a long time, he tallied the amount of trash he picked up, but he stopped counting years ago when he had filled about 40,000 gallons of garbage bags. In addition to the common street litter, he’s fished out lawn chairs, television sets, bicycles, tires, and wheels. He once found a loaded handgun in the river near the boat ramp and turned it over to the police. Over the years, he says he's visited Riverhills Park 576 times removing litter; Lettuce Lake Park off Fletcher Avenue 102 times; and Temple Crest Park 190 times.  

He’s also photographed a lot of beauty. After years of approaching the same female gators and their young, he says they seem to have accepted him as a non-threat. At first, the mama gators would come out to the kayak and hiss at him. He would back the kayak about 10 to 15 feet and talk to them. Eventually, they let him glide up close and take pictures of the babies.

But Luce can’t fully enjoy the beauty of that world with trash in the way.

“The litter, I can’t stand it, I just hate to see it. I have to pick it up. I cannot not pick it up. But it gives me a sense of purpose. I’m old, I’m retired, I’m toward the end of my life, and removing the litter makes me feel like I did something good.”
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Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.