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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.”