“Keep Coming:” Piles of trash continue to plague the Houston bayous – Houston Public Media

  • Volunteers clean up trash at a “trash beach” along the Houston Ship Channel. (Photo credit: Katie Watkins / Houston Public Media)

  • The Buffalo Bayou Partnership removes approximately 2,000 cubic yards of trash from the Houston bayous each year, enough to fill more than 160 commercial dump trucks.  (Photo credit: Katie Watkins / Houston Public Media)

    The Buffalo Bayou Partnership removes approximately 2,000 cubic yards of trash from the Houston bayous each year, enough to fill more than 160 commercial dump trucks. (Photo credit: Katie Watkins / Houston Public Media)

  • Waste piles up in the Port of Houston.  (Photo credit: Courtesy of Buffalo Bayou Partnership)

    Waste piles up in the Port of Houston. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Buffalo Bayou Partnership)

  • When it rains, trash from the street ends up in the bayou, eventually flowing down the ship's channel and into the ocean if not collected.  (Photo credit: Katie Watkins / Houston Public Media)

    When it rains, trash from the street ends up in the bayou, eventually flowing down the ship’s channel and into the ocean if not collected. (Photo credit: Katie Watkins / Houston Public Media)

  • Dave Rivers with Buffalo Bayou Partnership claims he found pretty much everything in the bayou, even the kitchen sink.  (Photo credit: Katie Watkins / Houston Public Media)

    Dave Rivers with Buffalo Bayou Partnership claims he found pretty much everything in the bayou, even the kitchen sink. (Photo credit: Katie Watkins / Houston Public Media)

For an upcoming trash series, we want to know what questions and concerns you have about waste management, recycling, waste, landfill, etc. in the Houston area. Email kwatkins@houstonpublicmedia.org with your thoughts. A thousand thanks!

On a recent Saturday morning, about 20 volunteers gathered to clean up the trash along the Houston Ship Channel. Armed with bins and garbage bags, they began to tackle a small “garbage beach” across the canal from a refinery. The sand was barely visible under the piles of discarded items that covered the beach: tires, a children’s crocodile, tennis balls, a plastic toy kitchen.

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“We are just surrounded by plastic bottles,” said Amy Dinn, an environmental lawyer and one of the volunteers. Underneath the larger objects, pieces of Styrofoam covered the ground, giving it the look of snow from afar.

“We’ve seen a lot worse,” Dinn said.

The amount of garbage that ends up in Houston’s waterways is substantial. In 2021 alone, Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP), a leading organization that cleans up waste in and along the bayous, removed nearly 2,000 cubic yards of garbage – enough to fill more than 160 commercial dump trucks.

In addition to being ugly to look at, the garbage can worsen the quality of the water and harms plants and wildlife. It can also harbor bacteria, spread disease and create blocks which make floods worse.

“It keeps coming. No matter what we do, no matter how much we clean it up,” said David Rivers, with BBP, who brought the volunteer group to Ship Channel. He took a break from raking the Styrofoam into a bag as a pungent odor wafted through the air.

“I call it Bayou potpourri,” Rivers said.

Katie Watkins / Houston Public Media

Dave Rivers, also known as Bayou Dave, collects tiny pieces of Styrofoam.

Rivers, who is known to many as Bayou Dave, has worked with BBP’s garbage cleaning team for 13 years. He said they saw everything: tools, coolers, water pipes, even the kitchen sink.

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

Volunteer groups make up a small part of the work done by BBP. Staff members, like Rivers, clean up trash five days a week, and some of their funding comes from the county.

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

The amount of trash is worse after the rain because all the trash on the streets is washed in the bayou, according to Robby Robinson, BBP’s head of field operations.

“When we have that two-inch rain, you drain those drains, and that’s when we see horrible garbage,” Robinson said.

Even the 160 dump trucks they collect each year are only a fraction of all the trash that ends up in the water.

“We don’t take most of the garbage,” Robinson said. “I wish I could say we did it, but the reality is we don’t.”

Katie Watkins / Houston Public Media

Volunteers clean up trash at a beach along the Houston Ship Channel.

The garbage that is not collected by the Houston bayous, eventually makes its way to the oceanendangering marine life that mistakes it for food.

Robinson said the amount of garbage has remained constant over the years, except during Covid.

“When everything went down and people stopped eating out, we saw a big decrease in garbage,” he said. “When our system shuts down, the trash shuts down, so you know the trash is our product.”

Robinson said one solution he would like to see statewide is a bottle depot where consumers receive money for the return of plastic containers.

“If you value them, you can’t find them on your shores anymore, they end up back in the system to be recycled,” he said.

Studies have shown that places with bottle storage have less waste and higher recycling rates, including reports of Australian researchers And the non-profit organization 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 achieved a return rate of 90%.which means 90% of all items covered by its deposit program have been returned for recycling.

Bottle bills have been introduced multiple times in Texas, but have never been approved. A report prepared by an independent consultant for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2021, recommends further investigating a bottle bill for the state.

In addition to legislative action, Robinson said it’s also important to make people aware of the problem, and that’s where volunteer groups come into play.

“Most people never get to see how horrible this problem is,” Robinson said.

Katie Watkins / Houston Public Media

The District I Decontamination Unit is one of many volunteer groups that help collect waste in Houston.

F.ranciso Tijero is the founder of the group of volunteers who helped the BBP clean up the naval canal. Call his group the District I Decontamination Unit.

“I started thinking about how the District I Decontamination Unit sounds so post-apocalyptic, so beautiful,” Tijero said.

Tijero has been cleaning up the trash since the 1980s and said he just wants to make it fun so more people join. He has ideas on how to get more traction, like cleaning in costumes or at night with headlights.

“I want to draw attention, positive attention to a negative problem,” he said. “I want to create a huge group of people where we find problem areas and attack like locusts – just go in and clean up.”

Katie Watkins / Houston Public Media

When waste ends up in waterways, it can harm wildlife and spread disease.

Elliot Milian, a 9th grade student, who came with his family, said he first attended a cleanup to meet his Boy Scout troop’s hours, but in the end he enjoyed it so much he came back. .

“At first it really only started for hours, but it got interesting when we met all these people,” he said.

Millian now tries to use less plastic and said seeing all the tiny pieces of Styrofoam on the beach made him think how hard it is to clean up once he’s in the environment.

“Styrofoam is just crazy,” he said. “No matter what we do, there will always be Styrofoam still there.”

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