This article appeared in the September 2021 issue of Resource Recycling. Subscribe today for access to all print content.
It’s January 2020 and I am out at a busy intersection in Austin, Texas, sweating even in the winter, collecting any piece of litter I see.
I am working alongside Karen Maldonado, project manager for Keep Texas Beautiful (KTB), and we are “in the field.” Wearing our safety vests, we’re developing protocols and gathering data to expand the science behind what our organization has been doing for more than 50 years – keeping communities clean and beautiful by empowering volunteers to clean up litter.
The day we were at that intersection, we had only just begun to throw around the idea of having a single repository for litter data across Texas, which is currently home to 29 million people and growing very quickly.
At the same time, Maia Corbitt, the president of Texans for Clean Water and director of mission giving for the Garver Black Hilyard Family Foundation, was seeking data to spark more comprehensive solutions for solid waste management and litter abatement. Corbitt had a vision of a publicly available statewide litter database and, ideally, more specific data on litter types and quantities to help policymakers and others make more informed decisions at the local and state level.
This is the story about how the database vision became reality and why advancing litter tracking can be an important step for materials management professionals elsewhere across the country.
From data to decision-making
Texas is no stranger to solid waste data projects, as the State of Texas Alliance for Recycling (STAR) has proven over the past seven years. The Texas Recycling Data Initiative was launched in 2014 and subsequent reports have quantified the level of recycling happening in the state.
However, when it comes to litter, which is essentially just mismanaged and/or misplaced solid waste, it’s a bit harder to get a large-scale picture of what’s happening in Texas.
There are many litter prevention programs and cleanups that take place around the state, and Keep Texas Beautiful has historically only captured data from the cleanups associated with its programs. We’ve known that so much more is happening beyond our network, but we’ve had no way to collect that information.
Why is this data so important? Knowing what litter is out there and where it is located can be helpful to inform policy, educational, programmatic and infrastructure decisions. For example, if there are certain hotspots for litter, like a city park, this data can let city employees know that they either need additional trash and recycling containers or to potentially service their containers more frequently and efficiently.
On a state level, the data can be used to inform better policy decisions that can help communities spend less money on litter activities.
According to a 2017 study prepared for Texans for Clean Water by consultancy Burns & McDonnell, nine Texas cities, representing more than 25% of the state’s population, spent more than $50 million annually on litter and illegal dumping prevention, education, abatement and enforcement efforts.
If the situation can be improved, the financial resources Texas cities are currently using to combat litter and illegal dumping could be used for other solid waste management programs, such as improving recycling systems or providing grants for developing innovative end markets for hard-to-recycle material.
Building on previous efforts
Corbitt of the Garver Black Hilyard Family Foundation began the process of tracking Texas litter more comprehensively by reaching out to the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) and KTB to help develop and promote the database.
The database builds on the efforts from the Houston-Galveston region of the state. Stephanie Glenn and Erin Kinney, scientists with HARC, had previously worked together with the Partners in Litter Prevention stakeholder group to develop an outline for a regional database.
“HARC helped convene key stakeholders representing over 25 local nonprofit organizations and government agencies to develop a Galveston Bay Watershed Aquatic Debris Action Plan, which identified the need for a central database that organizes trash and marine debris data,” said Kinney.
Those stakeholders envisioned a database that would collect information on the location, quantity and types of trash collected across the region. Over the next few months, KTB and HARC worked with external organizations to conduct cleanups and test the database to provide feedback on the usability of the system.
In July 2021, the Texas Litter Database, which will be housed and administered by KTB, launched as the first comprehensive collection of litter data for the Lone Star state. The database’s development brought together multiple organizations with the same goal.
“The stars aligned to bring this project to fruition, and the Garver Black Hilyard Family Foundation could not be happier with the efforts of KTB, HARC and all of the individuals and partner organizations that worked on this effort,” Corbitt said. “We hope this will serve as a model for other states and ultimately a national database to even better realize the potential of leveraging information into action.”
KTB and HARC plan to promote and propagate the Texas Litter Database using their robust networks of partner organizations and community affiliates, all of which are working to prevent and eventually eliminate litter.
The organizations involved as data partners are: HARC, KTB and its nearly 300 community affiliates, the American Bird Conservancy, the North Central Texas Council of Governments, the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, and the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory.
These organizations recently entered into an memorandum of understanding, agreeing to input data from any cleanups into the Texas Litter Database.
The first major push for litter data will come this fall, as KTB and its affiliates conduct events through its Fall Sweep litter cleanup program.
“Keep Texas Beautiful has been collecting litter data and cleanup results from affiliates across the state for years,” said Suzanne Kho, executive director of Keep Texas Beautiful. “The litter database will now put information in the hands of our affiliates, who can input and access data anytime, anywhere. The data will help KTB affiliates quantify their community impact, improve their litter abatement outreach efforts and reach more local residents.”
Enlisting citizen scientists
As part of the launch, HARC and KTB developed a protocol for collecting and sampling litter, which became known as the STOP method (Study, Track, remOve and Prevent).
And for those who want to just pick up and remove trash but not categorize everything, the Take2ForTexas citizen scientist program was launched alongside the Texas Litter Database to collect information specifically on littered plastic bottles. Participants can take two minutes to collect plastic bottles and then input the number of pieces collected into the Texas Litter Database.
This program was modeled after the Nurdle Patrol initiative, which encourages citizen scientists to pick up and count plastic pellets on beaches and other places around the nation. Nurdle Patrol data was used as evidence in a successful lawsuit against Formosa Plastics Corporation USA over the pollution of plastic pellets from one of its Texas factories.
“The Take2ForTexas and STOP methods provide convenient, simple instructions for volunteers to contribute to citizen science,” said Zoe Killian, recycling and waste minimization program coordinator for The Woodlands, Texas and coordinator for Keep The Woodlands Beautiful. “I see many opportunities for us to use the event feature for large community litter cleanups and to track small independent cleanups throughout the year.”
The Take2ForTexas and STOP methods are examples of how data initiatives can be used to improve environmental policies and procedures, right from a smartphone or computer.
“The Texas Litter Database really speaks to a need in the region,” said Kinney of HARC.
Added Glenn, “This is a first-of-its-kind database that can be used to promote efforts to reduce, remove and research trash and litter in waterways in the region and beyond. The transparency of data and ease of accessibility will result in information and numbers to inform actionable science.”
Impact on recycling legislation
Keep Texas Recycling, a Keep Texas Beautiful program, has seen firsthand how partnerships and grant programs can help expand collection sites and items collected, which has been vital to increasing recycling access in Texas.
This past Texas legislative session, a bill was introduced that would create a rebate program for certain commonly littered items, like plastic bottles and plastic film. Although the bill did not pass, it showed state decision-makers the need for more data and information on what and how much is littered and the potential impact legislation could have on the littering issue in the state.
Some states have been able to use data showing a reduction in litter and increase of recycling to sustain their container deposit systems. Additionally, evidence of what material isn’t being captured by traditional trash and recycling programs can be used to advocate for additional resources to put into making those programs more efficient and beneficial.
With the launch of the Texas Litter Database, KTB, HARC, the Garver Black Hilyard Family Foundation and all the data partners are hoping to attain goals of less litter, increased recovery of easily recyclable materials, and better education and infrastructure.
Ultimately, these forces can all work together to encourage better solid waste decisions for the future of Texas.
Sara Nichols is the Program Director at Keep Texas Beautiful. She can be contacted at [email protected] For more information about the Texas Litter Database and how you can get involved, visit txlitter.org.