Houston Matters

Houston has more litter, lately. What officials are doing to tackle the problem

While the city has cleaning crews, it relies on residents to report issues and dispose of trash properly to keep Houston clean.


Trash along the shore of Buffalo Bayou near Memorial Park


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Houston Matters listener Elisabete Hilario e-mailed the show recently, expressing her "growing concern about litter in Houston." She noted that she sees "litter everywhere, especially in the Timbergrove, Heights area and [on our] highways" and wondered if the problem could be addressed on an upcoming show. Host Craig Cohen talked to Robby Robinson, field operations manager for the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, which features a trash cleanup team that operates a "Bayou-Vac," a barge with a 16-foot-long vacuum hose designed to suck up debris. Cohen also spoke with Danny Perez, a spokesman with TxDOT. The department's efforts to remove trash from highways include the Adopt-a-Highway program and the longstanding "Don't Mess with Texas" campaign.

The city is indeed seeing an increase of litter, Perez said.

“What’s happening is folks are driving, they’re not securing their loads, they’re dumping trash out on the roadway, discarding whether it’s burger wrappers, any kind of trash they don’t want in their vehicles they’re throwing it out,” he said. “A lot of maintenance crews are out, they’re working with the contractors, they’re making sure we’re sweeping these areas. Cleaning them up. But when we do clean them, we’re seeing within days there’s a large amount of trash.”

Perez said the city does have regular cleaning schedules and depend on people reporting instances of littering, and to do their part of not throwing trash on the roads. Perez added that they still try to keep the drains clean, even during the drought.

“We’re going to get maybe an inch of rain and that could cause a flooding issue,” he said. “We haven’t seen an increase during the drought, but we’re seeing more traffic, and that means we’re going to see more trash.”

Robinson said the Bayou has seen a decrease in the bayous due to the drought.

“The trash in the bayous is not from the people littering the bayous, it’s coming from the city streets,” he said. “Buffalo Bayou drains about 213 square miles of urban streets. The trash collects in the storm drains. When it rains we call it ‘the first flush’ and it’s horrendous what comes down the bayou.”

Robinson said they have invented their own trash-collecting boat, called the Bayou-Vac. The vacuum stays above the surface and sucks trash out of the water. It also sucks up trash along the banks. They also collect trash by hand. Aside from storms, Robinson said they see the most trash when there’s a light rain after a prolonged lack of rain, like Thursday’s rain event.

Robinson said most of the trash is not recyclable and goes to the landfill.

Perez said that there are certain pockets of highways that are clean and others that are not partially because of the Adopt A Highway program. Organizations and groups may adopt a highway stretch and keep it clean. But some of it is that different agencies, like small cities or management districts, supplement the work.

“That’s why we try to promote (litter prevention program) ‘Don’t Mess With Texas’ because we really want the public to understand they have a part in this.”

Perez said one way could be by simply securing their loads on their trucks, and keeping trash out of their cars by properly disposing of it.

“We’re asking folks to really take it upon themselves: Don’t mess with Texas,” Perez said. “Don’t mess with Texas is more than just don’t mess with the state of Texas; it’s keeping our state clean.”