Texas

‘It just keeps going’: Garbage piles continue to plague Houston’s rivers.

From Houston media:

On a recent Saturday morning, about 20 volunteers gathered to clean up trash along the Houston Ship Canal. Armed with pickers and trash bags, they launched an assault on a small “garbage beach” across the canal from the refinery. The sand was barely visible under the piles of discarded things that covered the beach: tires, a baby crocodile, tennis balls, a plastic toy kitchen.

“We are just surrounded by plastic bottles,” said Amy Dinn, an environmental lawyer and one of the volunteers. Under the larger objects, the ground was covered in chunks of Styrofoam, making it look like snow from a distance.

“We’ve seen worse,” Dean said.

The amount of garbage entering Houston’s waterways is enormous. In 2021 alone, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP), one of the premier waste cleanup organizations in and along the bay, removed nearly 2,000 cubic yards of trash — enough to fill more than 160 commercial dump trucks.

In addition to being ugly, litter can degrade water quality and harm plants and wildlife. It can also harbor bacteria, spread disease, and create blockages that exacerbate flooding.

“It just keeps going. Whatever we do, however we clean it up,” said David Rivers of BBP, which led a group of volunteers to the Ship Canal. He took a break, scooping up the Styrofoam into a bag, when a sharp smell wafted through the air.

“I call it a Bayou potpourri,” Rivers said.

Rivers, known to many as Bayou Dave, has been with the BBP waste collection team for 13 years. He said they saw it all: tools, coolers, water hoses—even the kitchen sink.

“In one place, we pulled over 50 baskets out of the water,” he said.

Volunteer groups make up a small part of the work that BBP does. Employees like Rivers clean up trash five days a week and part of their funding comes from the county.

Rivers is the captain of their Bayou-Vac, a specially designed barge with a 16-foot vacuum hose that sucks up trash and debris.

According to Robbie Robinson, BBP’s field operations manager, the amount of litter increases after rain because all the litter on the streets is washed into the rivers.

“When we have this two-inch rain, it washes away these storm drains, and then we see terrible garbage,” Robinson said.

Even the 160 dump trucks they collect every year is only a small fraction of the garbage that ends up in the water.

“We don’t get most of the garbage,” Robinson said. “I wish I could say we did it, but we really didn’t.”

Garbage that is not removed from Houston Bay ends up in the ocean, endangering marine life who mistake it for food.

Robinson said the amount of litter has remained stable over the years, with the exception of the Covid period.

“When everything closed and people stopped eating out, we saw a significant decrease in litter,” he said. “When our system goes down, the trash closes, so you know the trash is our product.”

Robinson said one solution he would like to see across the state is bottle storage, where consumers get paid to return plastic containers.

“If you value them, you won’t find them on your shores anymore, they end up back in the system for recycling,” he said.

Research has shown that bottled sites have less litter and higher recycling rates, including reports from Australian researchers and the nonprofit Keep America Beautiful.

Oregon was the first state to implement such a system, and its program is considered the most successful. In 2019, the state’s return rate reached 90%, meaning that 90% of all items covered by its deposit program were returned for recycling.

Bottle bills were introduced several times in Texas, but never got through. A 2021 report by an independent consultant to the Texas Environmental Quality Commission recommends further investigation into the state’s bottle bill.

Robinson said that in addition to legislative action, it is also important to educate people about the issue, and this is where volunteer groups come into play.

“Most people will never see how terrible this problem is,” Robinson said.

Francisco Tigero is the founder of a volunteer group that helped BBP clean up the Ship Canal. He calls his group the District I Decontamination Division.

“I started thinking about how post-apocalyptic the District I decontamination unit sounds — so cool,” Tijero said.

Tijero has been cleaning up trash since the 80s and said he just wants to make it fun so that more people join him. He has ideas on how to get more attention, like cleaning in suits or at night with headlamps.

“I want to bring attention, positive attention to a negative issue,” he said. “I want to build a huge team of people where we find problem areas and attack like locusts – just go in there and clean up.”

Ninth grader Elliot Milian, who came with his family, said he first joined the cleanup to work hours for his Boy Scout troop, but ended up enjoying it so much he returned.

“It only lasted a few hours at first, but it got interesting when we met all these people,” he said.

Millian is now trying to use less plastic and said the sight of the tiny pieces of Styrofoam on the beach made him think about how difficult it is to clean up once it gets into the environment.

“Styrofoam is just crazy,” he said. “No matter what we do, the styrofoam will always remain.”

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