Every Waterkeeper and many local and even state governments brag about trash cleanups. Cleanups need to be done, but actually they are the least effective way to deal with trash. They do not stop trash; they just remove it once it blows off roads or parking lots or floats downstream.
So let’s look up, to see more effective solutions.
Solid waste management hierarchy
Here WWALS has adapted an industry-standard waste management hierarchy diagram. We’ve gone farther than just cleaning up, containing, or even reusing the trash. Our diagram goes all the way up to stopping it being produced.
Let’s start at the pointy bottom of the pyramid.
Landfilling: cleanups go here, at the bottom, least-effective point of the pyramid, because trash from cleanups goes into landfills.
That is better than into creeks and rivers, but it sure does not stop the problem.
Cleanups alone are like cleaning up sewage spewing out of manholes without fixing the manhole to stop the leak. Trash still gets into creeks where children play and where wildlife eat styrofoam and plastic that they can’t digest.
Cities don’t ask volunteers to clean up sewage spills. They should not depend on volunteers to clean up their ongoing trash spills.
Containment: this is where detention ponds and trash traps come in.
- Detention Ponds: Just cleaning out detention ponds when they need it would help a lot. Screens on the outfall pipes on every detention pond would help keep it out of creeks. That would at least be like stopping manholes from leaking. So that’s a step up from just cleaning up the trash once it gets into waterways, but it still does not stop the trash at its source.
Trash traps: They can keep trash from getting farther down a creek or into a river.
But they are like cleaning up sewage after it has already run down the creek.
The model we drew from had this level as Incineration, but no incinerator in the U.S. actually thoroughly destroys trash like some European ones do. So we renamed this level to be Containment.
Resource Recovery: This is a good level to put enforcing trash ordinances.
Valdosta, for example, has excellent trash ordinances that require landowners
not to let trash escape their property (no matter where it came from),
and trash cans strategically placed per number of parking spaces.
Enforcing such ordinances could stop a lot of trash from getting into waterways
even before it gets to detention ponds or trash traps.
And ordinance violation notices to property owners or managers can be a powerful educational method, even before applying fines or enforced cleanups or even criminal penalties.
Policy: Local governments have plenty of opportunities for planning, zoning, and business permit renewals.
For example, the 2021 Update to the Lowndes County Comprehensive Plan includes:
2. Needs and Opportunities,
6. Natural Resources
- p.18, Needs: Capture single-use plastic waste and control litter
- p. 19, Opportunities: A behavior change program could be introduced to inform residents of the risks of littering
- AP-35 Projects – 91.220(d), p. 90, Community Sidewalk Project: Support Housing Rehabilitation and Neighborhood Revitalization through the removal of slum and blighted conditions and providing designated collection points for bulk trash and vacant lot and public space debris to improve the habitability of housing and support neighborhood improvement. (That was supposed to happen by 6/30/2021, but only in Designated Revitalization Areas; seems like the whole city could use it.)
- 6. Community Policies, p. 44, 6. Natural Resources
- Goal: Promote and protect natural resources and opportunities for recreation through public access and conservation. A key component of this goal is the desire for community beautification of public and private land through behavior change to reduce littering and through an increased focus on landscaping maintenance of property.
- Policies: 6.25 Increase the number of trash traps along waterways and continue to collect litter.
Since Valdosta Mayor and Council approved that Plan, they already voted to deploy more trash traps. Now they just need to engineer them, find the money, and do it. They have made a start at doing that. And they are working on a next step. It’s refreshing to see some progress, although they have much more to do.
- 2. Needs and Opportunities, 6. Natural Resources
In January 2023 helped win a rezoning case that stopped a proposed Dollar General
too near the Withlacoochee River.
Much to our surprise, the Lowndes County Commission has changed their opinions since Dollar General started requesting rezonings back in 2012. Massive opposition by local landowners and others surely helped. This time, the Commissioners unanimously denied the rezoning and said that was the right decision. Maybe there are really enough Dollar Generals in one county.
In 2021 there were heavily-attended meetings about a potential change to the Lowndes County Comprehensive Plan that would have decreased the size of the Agricultural and Forestry Character Areas, thus facilitating development where it does not belong, risking more trash near more creeks and rivers. The result was the Plan did not get changed, but a controversial rezoning was approved.
Yet the same Character Area figured prominently in the county’s denial of the above-mentioned rezoning. The moral appears to be that citizens need to get involved early with planning, even before zoning.
In Union County, Florida, changes to the Comprehensive Plan to limit mining survived a lawsuit by the miners and figured into the miners withdrawing their application in neighboring Bradford County. Strip mining might be considered one of the worst kinds of trash.
- Business Permit Renewals:
Valdosta trash ordinances say controlling trash can figure into business permit renewals.
Quite a few property owners need to be reminded of that. Perhaps that education will make it unnecessary to actually refuse some permit renewals.
Other cities and counties have trash problems. Valdosta and Lowndes County are our current main focus of work about trash because they are the most populous city and county in the Suwannee River Basin.
In the diagram we drew from, this level was called Recycling. But recycling has always been a scam, with the vast majority of “recycled” materials going into landfills. Recycling as we know it today mostly serves as greenwashing of production of single-use packaging, for the profit of fossil fuel and fast food companies. So we renamed this level to be Policy.
- Planning: For example, the 2021 Update to the Lowndes County Comprehensive Plan includes:
Reuse: There are many opportunities to substitute renewable straws, cups, bags, or boxes.
- Waterkeeper Alliance at its annual conference provides one steel drinking glass per attendee, good for free beer. I don’t drink much beer, but I have quite a collection of those. We use steel drinking glasses and cups at home because they don’t break and thus they don’t cause glass trash.
- Sam’s on Norman Drive in Valdosta switched from styrofoam cups to paper cups and biodegradable straws. That avoids styrofoam breaking down and the pieces being eaten by wildlife that cannot digest it. Paper is messy, but it doesn’t have that problem and it eventually biodegrades. Many businesses are providing durable reusable plastic to go containers.
- As a WWALS member said, “I was pleased with the rugged cardboard to go containers used at a restaurant in Tally recently. Those were GREAT!”
If businesses do not switch to substitutes voluntarily, local governments or states or even federal can require them.
Bottle Deposits: More than a dozen U.S. states still have bottle deposits: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon, Vermont, (and Guam). People can get typically ten cents back for each used bottle. There is no reason Georgia and Florida cannot also adopt bottle deposits.
Finally at this broad level of the pyramid we get to the most effective measure:
ban single-use packaging.
Colorado, Maine, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Washington, D.C. have banned styrofoam packaging. The U.K., Canada, and various countries have partial bans. The U.S. Interior Dept. is phasing out the sale of single-use plastics on U.S. public lands.
France has banned many types and uses of single-use packaging. And McDonalds has led the way to better packaging in France. So there is no reason that fast food companies in the U.S. cannot do the same.
In Florida, local governments can’t pass packaging bans, because the state passed a pre-emption bill. But a statewide pre-emption bill failed badly in the Georgia House in 2015. The legislature is not likely to take up that losing proposition again, which means Valdosta, for example, could pass a plastic bag ban, or a styrofoam ban. And Valdosta could lobby the legislature to do the same statewide.
The bottom four levels, Landfilling, Containment, Resource Recovery, and Policy, are well within the power of any local government.
Of the top two, bottle deposits is about the only example that local governments probably can not do anywhere. Although local governments can lobby state governments to implement bottle deposits.
Notice there is no Education level, because every level is an opportunity for education, especially of parking lot owners, business owners, and government officials, as well as the general public.
None of these solutions are perfect. Even banning single-use containers won’t stop some people from discarding tires or coolers. Although WWALS already helped reduce tire discards by getting six county and city governments to pass resolutions supporting a state trust fund bill that passed, putting a resolution on the ballot for a constitutional amendment to stop diversions of fees from for example tire sales. The voters overwhelmingly passed that amendment, so now tire amnesty events by counties and cities are well-funded again. No number of cleanups could have gotten as many tires out of creeks and rivers.
No single location is adequate for stopping trash. It’s a non-point-source problem.
But so was human fecal waste before sewage systems. Cities and counties don’t let people defecate on the street, and they don’t tolerate landowners permitting such waste getting into waterways. It’s time for them to treat trash the same way.
For more on the trash situation, see:
-jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®
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