It may look like a basket full of trash to most people, but it’s a treasure trove of data to Ellie Mallon, project manager for the Osprey Initiative. She’s working with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP) as part of a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to build a litter database that quantifies what, when and where litter comes from to identify trends that can more effectively facilitate future cleanup and source reduction campaigns in Tampa Bay and its watershed.
“The goal is to capture the litter, then identify its source and build partnerships to address it,” said Joe Whalen, TBEP’s outreach coordinator. “It’s a pragmatic initiative that puts the data into action.”
A two-pronged approach
While collecting data on litter is a long-term initiative, the EPA’s Trash-Free Waters grant also looks at immediate impacts. Twelve litter collection devices, from Watergoats made in Tampa Bay to Sea Bins, which suck up and filter debris in calm waters, and Florida’s first Litter Gitters, are being deployed at outfalls across the region to see which device works best under various circumstances.
The region’s three Keep America Beautiful affiliates – Tampa Bay, Pinellas and Manatee – are partners in the program, charged with collecting litter from the devices. It will all be weighed to track the overall effectiveness of the collection devices, then one in every 10 bags will go through the EPA’s “Escaped Trash Assessment Protocol” or ETAP, a quantitative tool that provides a standard method for collecting and assessing litter data.
The EPA recently finalized the ETAP so that watersheds across the country can begin quantifying their litter, said Jason Kudulis, restoration project manager for the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (MBNEP), which also is a partner on TBEP’s ETAP initiative.
“The beauty of ETAP is that you can categorize litter data by product, condition, quantity, type and brand,” he said. “Then you can move beyond being reactive and removing trash to become proactive in preventing it.” Over time, the detailed local data also will be used to create a national database that compares apples to apples in multiple locations.
Step-by-step to litter prevention
Nearly 80% of litter nationally consists of single-use plastics: the ubiquitous water bottles, Styrofoam cups from fast-food restaurants and convenience stores, disposable plastic bags, food and cigarette wrappers, and straws and stirrers.
Preventing litter, though, is not as simple as replacing plastics with more environmentally friendly choices, Kudulis said. Eco-friendly packaging can be more expensive or not as readily available as plastic and Styrofoam options from a distributor although an increase in consumer demand and supply chains could alleviate these challenges. Major chains have very specific food and beverage packaging requirements. Even locally owned convenience stores and restaurants may be unable to switch products if they have branded soda, coffee or frozen drink machines.
Another issue that was raised by restaurateurs and consumers was quality. “If they leak and a customer ends up with a lapful of sauce, you’re going to get complaints no matter how environmentally sensitive the packaging is,” Kudulis said. To field test eco-friendly alternatives, MBNEP teamed up with a local restaurant on a “Ditch the Disposables” campaign, paying for a week’s worth of packaging including cups, straws, and entrée-sized take-out containers.
Customers, encouraged to participate with the chance to win a large-screen television, had good feedback on the effectiveness of the biodegradable alternatives. More importantly, 83% of the 300 customers surveyed said they would be willing to pay between five and 35 cents extra for sustainable products.
“This wasn’t just some upscale restaurant,” Kudulis adds. “It was a locally owned restaurant in an underserved community that attracts people of all ages and races.”
On the ground in Tampa Bay
The Osprey Initiative was in town recently to deploy the first Litter Gitter at Clam Bayou in Gulfport and to train TBEP partners on how to use ETAP. “This is the Rosetta Stone of litter,” quipped Don Bates, owner of Osprey Initiative.
Mallon dumps a basket of litter on a tarp and begins separating it out, first by material — paper, glass, metal, or plastic – then by type, such as bottles, cans, containers, caps, and straws.
The condition of the litter is important too, because it can indicate how long it has been exposed to the elements and degrading. Brand names also are recorded and tallied on the ETAP form.
The data doesn’t exist in a vacuum, Bates adds. “If we can see patterns, we can look at specific ways to deal with it.” For instance, an increase in litter following weekend sports events could indicate that there are not enough trash cans at local venues.
Aside from simply removing litter, collected data from this project will be used to engage businesses, local governments and consumers to promote corporate responsibility through business practices that consider alternative packaging strategies to reduce single-use plastics. “This is a way to use this data in our communities to work toward solutions,” Kudulis said.