EPA - Trash Free Waters

Sizing Up Texas and its Trash Problem

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Texas has 3,359 miles of coastline, including tidal inlets, along the Gulf of Mexico. Texas is also one of the fastest-growing states in the U.S., with the Texas Demographic Center estimating that steady population growth will continue between now and 2050. It estimates that as we approach 2050, 47.4 million people will call Texas home; currently, nearly 30 million people reside in the state. As the state’s population grows, so will the amount of material consumed and discarded by its residents. 

Currently, Americans generate approximately 4.48 pounds of trash per day, and while a lot of that trash is properly managed through solid waste and recycling infrastructure, some of the trash does not end up in the right place, leading to increased litter all across the state. According to the EPA, 80% of aquatic litter, much of it single-use, disposable packaging, is generated from land-based sources. This escaped trash makes its way into Texas’ creeks, rivers, and bayous, and eventually, if not cleaned up, it travels to the wetlands and beaches of the Texas Gulf Coast.

Magnolia Park Brays Bayou

If anyone spends time in the beautiful beach towns of Texas, they can experience the effects of mismanaged or escaped trash. Depending on how recently they were cleaned, the beaches may be relatively free of larger trash - plastic bottles, Styrofoam food containers, straws, etc.- but one look at the high tide line tells a different story. Partially covered by sand and following the high tide line is a continual band of micro and macro plastics, all around an inch or smaller, containing worn down and weathered pieces of the larger trash items that once were improperly managed in a community miles and miles away from the coast. Plastic flakes, bottle caps, nurdles, fibers resembling tiny pieces of ropes, and other indistinguishable specks of trash are less obvious than the larger items they once were, but they pose a serious threat to coastal habitats and the wildlife that inhabit those areas. Threats to wildlife include physical hazards, such as ingesting microplastics or becoming entangled in rope, as well as toxicological threats from ingesting contaminants in and on plastic pieces that have degraded and been exposed to sunlight for an extended period of time. 

However, the problem isn’t just affecting the beaches and coastal communities. Inland, litter can cause severe stormwater issues. Litter can clog sewers and drains, leading to increased flooding during extreme weather events, of which Texas has many. Mismanaged organic waste (food scraps, pet waste, fertilizer, etc.) can lead to increased water quality issues, including algae growth and reduced oxygen available in fresh water sources for fish and other aquatic life. 

And working to prevent, combat, and clean up litter has a high price. According to a 2017 study, nine major cities in Texas (El Paso, Fort Worth, Midland, San Antonio, Austin, Lufkin, Houston, Corpus Christi, and Laredo) collectively spend more than $50 million annually on its litter and illegal dumping problem, and these cities represent only around 25 percent of the state’s population.

The Trash Free Waters programLitter on bayou

By leveraging existing affiliate partnerships in three diverse, Texas communities in the Gulf of Mexico watershed, KTB will create benchmark programs for litter cleanup and prevention. This project will identify gaps in each community’s litter prevention programming and promote education and resources to businesses and citizens with an end goal to reduce litter and its eventual flow into the Gulf of Mexico.

This project aligns with the EPA’s strategic plan, Goal 1: A cleaner, healthier environment (provide for clean and safe water) and Goal 2: More effective partnerships (enhance shared accountability, increase transparency and public participation). 

This project will provide technical assistance, programmatic solutions, and educational best practices related to litter cleanup and prevention for three areas of Texas. Each area is unique in its demographics, its position and location in the state, and its available resources to implement litter cleanup and prevention programs. The project areas include the Houston-Galveston Area, San Marcos and the South Padre Island-Lower Rio Grande Valley Area. During the project, KTB staff and affiliates will conduct community site visits, plan and lead stakeholder meetings, develop an individual work plan for each community, assist with plan implementation and summarize findings to create best practices able to be shared throughout the state and beyond.