News 88.7 inDepth

Energy & Environment

“It just keeps coming:” Piles of trash continue to plague Houston’s bayous

When trash gets in the waterways, it can worsen water quality, harm plants and wildlife, and create health issues.

  • Volunteers clean up trash at a "trash beach" along the Houston Ship Channel.  (Photo Credit: Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media)
    Volunteers clean up trash at a "trash beach" along the Houston Ship Channel. (Photo Credit: Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media)
  • Buffalo Bayou Partnership removes roughly 2,000 cubic yards of trash from Houston's bayous each year - that's enough to fill more than 160 commercial dump trucks.  (Photo Credit: Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media)
    Buffalo Bayou Partnership removes roughly 2,000 cubic yards of trash from Houston's bayous each year - that's enough to fill more than 160 commercial dump trucks. (Photo Credit: Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media)
  • Trash accumulates in the Port of Houston.  (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Buffalo Bayou Partnership)
    Trash accumulates in the Port of Houston. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Buffalo Bayou Partnership)
  • When it rains, the trash from the street ends up in the bayous, eventually flowing down the Ship Channel and into the ocean if it's not picked up.  (Photo Credit: Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media)
    When it rains, the trash from the street ends up in the bayous, eventually flowing down the Ship Channel and into the ocean if it's not picked up. (Photo Credit: Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media)
  • Dave Rivers with Buffalo Bayou Partnership says they've found pretty much everything in the bayous -- even the kitchen sink.  (Photo Credit: Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media)
    Dave Rivers with Buffalo Bayou Partnership says they've found pretty much everything in the bayous -- even the kitchen sink. (Photo Credit: Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media)

For an upcoming series about trash, we want to know what questions and concerns you have about waste management, recycling, littering, landfills, etc, in the Houston area. Send an email to kwatkins@houstonpublicmedia.org with your thoughts. Thanks so much!

Listen

To embed this piece of audio in your site, please use this code:

<iframe src="https://embed.hpm.io/437434/437356" style="height: 115px; width: 100%;"></iframe>
X

 

On a recent Saturday morning, around 20 volunteers gathered to clean up trash along the Houston Ship Channel. Armed with pickers and trash bags, they started tackling a small "trash beach" across the channel from a refinery. The sand was barely visible below the piles of discarded items covering the beach: tires, a child's Croc, tennis balls, a plastic toy kitchen.

Click here for more inDepth features.

"We're just surrounded by plastic bottles," said Amy Dinn, an environmental lawyer and one of the volunteers. Beneath the larger items, pieces of styrofoam coated the ground, giving it the appearance of snow from a distance.

"We've seen way worse," Dinn said.

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

Besides being ugly to look at, trash can worsen water quality and harm plants and wildlife. It can also harbor bacteria, spread disease, and create blockages that worsen flooding.

"It just keeps coming. No matter what we do, no matter how much we clean it up," said David Rivers, with BBP, which took the volunteer group out to the Ship Channel. He took a break from raking styrofoam into a bag, as a pungent smell wafted through the air.

"I call it Bayou potpourri," said Rivers.

Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media
Dave Rivers, also known as Bayou Dave, rakes up tiny pieces of styrofoam.

Rivers, who is known by many as Bayou Dave, has been working with BBP's trash cleanup team for 13 years. He said they've seen it all: tools, coolers, water hoses – even the kitchen sink.

"One area we pulled over 50 baskets out of the water, he said.

The volunteer groups make up a small fraction of the work BBP does. Staff members, like Rivers, clean up trash five days a week, and a chunk 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.

The amount of trash is worse after it rains because all the litter on the streets gets washed into the bayous, according to Robby Robinson, the field operations manager with BBP.

"When we have that two-inch rain, it flushes out those storm drains, and then that’s when we see horrific trash," Robinson said.

Even the 160 dump trucks worth of trash that they pick up each year is just a fraction of all the trash that gets in the water.

"We don’t get the majority of the trash," Robinson said. "I wish I could say we did 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 trash that isn't picked up from Houston's bayous, eventually makes its way to the ocean, endangering marine life who mistake it for food.

Robinson said the amount of trash has remained steady over the years — except for during Covid.

"When everything shut down and people quit eating out, we saw a big decrease in the trash," he said. "When our system shut down, the trash shut down, so you know the trash is a product of us."

Robinson said one solution he'd like to see statewide is a bottle deposit where consumers receive money for returning plastic containers.

"If you give them value, you don’t find them on your shores anymore, they end up back into the system getting recycled," he said.

Studies have shown places with bottle deposits have less litter and higher recycling rates, including reports by Australian researchers and the nonprofit Keep America Beautiful.

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

Bottle bills have been introduced several times in Texas, but have never passed. 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.

Beyond legislative action, Robinson said it's also important to make people aware of the problem, which is where volunteer groups come in.

"Most people never get to see how horrific this problem is," Robinson said.

Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media
The District I Decontamination Unit is one of the many volunteer groups that helps pick up trash in Houston.

Franciso Tijero is the founder of the volunteer group that was helping BBP clean up the Ship Channel. He calls his group the District I Decontamination Unit.

"I started thinking about how District I Decontamination Unit sounds so post-apocalyptic – so cool," Tijero said.

Tijero has been cleaning up trash since the 80s and said he just wants to make it fun so more people join. He has ideas for how to gain more traction, such as cleanups in costumes or at nighttime with headlamps.

"I want to attract attention, positive attention for a negative problem," he said. "I want to create a massive crew of people where we find problem areas and we attack like the locusts – just get in there and clean it up."

Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media
When trash ends up in waterways, it can harm wildlife and spread disease.

Ninth grader Elliot Milian, who came with his family, said he first participated in a cleanup to fulfill hours for his Boy Scout troop, but ended up enjoying it so much he came back.

"It first started really just for hours, but it kind of just got interesting as 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 about how hard it is to clean up once it's in the environment.

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