In Community Events, Education and Learning, Public Outreach, River and Water Organizations, River Restoration and Protection, River Science, Water policy, Water Quality

Trash to Action: How Litter Clean Up can Lead to Change

This is a guest blog post by Aaron Dickinson, a Masters of Public Policy student at Duke University who joined River Network this past summer as an intern.

How can trash collection and clean up lead to change in a community’s policies or practices? Because River Network supports community engagement through litter collection, trash clean ups, and the installation of in-stream litter collection devices, we wanted to know how this information can be used to inform change. As part of my summer research, I reviewed case studies to consider: (1) How in-stream litter devices are affecting behavior or policy change; and (2) What is the role of data collected by the in-stream litter devices.

Trash from throughout our watersheds is carried to our streams and rivers, and debris in rivers can ultimately reach the ocean, accumulating on beaches or getting trapped in circulating ocean currents. Ultimately, water travels, and so does anything caught in its path, making it important to focus on reducing trash at its source as well as removing it from our waterways.

Rio de Flag Clean Up in Southside, May 4th, 2018, volunteers removing trash from the Rio de Flag in Southside neighborhood south of Butler Ave. Flagstaff, Arizona.

One approach is the installation of in-stream litter devices, which are usually suspended at and above the surface level of the water to capture trash. Taking advantage of natural water currents, these devices ‘trap’ debris and trash that can then be emptied manually and sorted. Municipalities across the country have included in-stream litter devices as part of their litter mitigation strategies for some time (e.g. the Bandalong Litter Trap, Mr. Trash Wheel, and Litter Gitters) and data on the trash collected can inform local decision-makers and activists on where the pollution originates. While the primary benefit of an in-stream litter device is a cleaner waterway, these devices provide the opportunity to engage the community on trash mitigation, as well as have the potential to galvanize policy and behavioral change.

River Network, with support from the Coca-Cola Foundation, has been empowering communities to address this litter issue at the source. Through a partnership with Osprey Initiative, the creator of the Litter Gitter, River Network has made it possible for local groups to install in-stream litter capture devices in Birmingham, AL, and New Orleans, LA, and we plan to install devices across two new cities in 2022. You can read more on the partnership in Birmingham on our blog.


What is the role of data being collected by in-stream litter devices?

 I wasn’t surprised to find data at the center of each and every example I reviewed, as data is needed to inform smart water management practices. Municipalities will often ask for the information collected from the in-stream litter devices to identity pollution sources and to improve water management decisions. For example, in Louisiana, litter collected in Ponchatoula Creek is used to inform water management policies in the Tangipahoa Parish Government. Municipalities often used the data as a metric to determine the success of an in-stream littler device. This was crucial in deciding to renew a lease or when securing a funding source for the litter capture device. In addition, while municipalities benefit from easy access to trash data, advocates benefit from this data as well. At their various installation sites, for example, Osprey Initiative uses the Escaped Trash Assessment Protocol to document weight, volume, and type of litter, and then they analyze the data, presenting it to city officials for recommendations on how to prevent and manage litter. Additionally, Mr. Trash Wheel provides the data for its collection sites for free online. This is vital to not only showing and sharing the success of in-stream litter devices, but provides an easy-access opportunity for researchers or decision-makers to review the data.

Trash data can also be used to engage citizens with the ongoing work of the in-stream litter devices. Groundwork Anacostia River DC (GWARDC), for example, used data to engage community members on litter issues by partnering with a job corps to train youth to collect, record, and categorize trash data and maintain the devices.

How are in-stream litter devices affecting behavior or policy change?

In-stream litter devices can affect change. Advocates, for instance, can incorporate data into campaigns to strengthen arguments for better trash management policies, and trash collection can highlight the need for behavior change.

In Baltimore, the Waterfront Partnership is a nonprofit funded by a coalition local businesses that works to create “a clean, green, safe, sustainable, and thriving urban waterfront for all to enjoy.” As the Baltimore community embraced and celebrated the impact of the original Mr. Trash Wheel, the Partnership got involved and began a campaign to produce more trash wheels and install them in other areas of the city. Further, the Partnership created a persona and branding for Mr. Trash Wheel, adding a name, along with a cute face with large googly eyes, and a social media profile to engage Baltimore residents. Residents and tourists alike visit Mr. Trash Wheel (and the other devices across Baltimore) and the popular slogan “Don’t Feed Mr. Trash Wheel” brings awareness to the pollution and littering problem.

The Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore says that the photos and data collected from Mr. Trash Wheel in Baltimore Harbor “prompted a culture of behavior change in Baltimore city, and legislative change…in the city and at the state level.” In 2019, Maryland became the first state in the country to ban polystyrene foam food containers and cups, and the Waterfront Partnership believes that Mr. Trash Wheel was critical in gathering support for the ban.

Along Louisana’s Ponchatoula Creek, the Litter Gitter was installed specifically to provide information to inform water management. The device was “checked for trash and debris every two weeks… and waste was analyzed [and profiled]… to inform the community on specific litter issues and inform local leaders. As the data is analyzed and recommendations delivered, the city of Tangipahoa will have a better understanding how to “better reduce trash loading on water bodies and prevent that pollution from continuing downstream” In Alabama, where Litter Gitter originated, recent legislation, sponsored by Rep. Margie Wilcox of Mobile, AL, provides strict fees to those caught littering in the state.

How are river clean ups and trash collection changing things where you live? Let us know!


For additional information on in-stream litter capture devices and a guide for which device might work best in your local waterway, download Waste in Our Waters: A Community Toolkit for Aquatic Litter Removal.


  • George Ricks

    Please call me.
    I need some help cleaning up litter and trash on property bought on Beaver Creek in Tangipahoa.

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