Jun 15, 2023 - Climate

Tampa's Litter Skimmer collects 13 tons of trash in first year

The litter skimmer. Photo courtesy of the City of Tampa

In the year since Tampa's Litter Skimmer launched in the Hillsborough River, the boat has eaten tons of garbage so our wildlife doesn't have to.

The cost: $566,400 for the 43-foot boat, Tampa Solid Waste Department spokesperson Marla Spence-Howell told Axios.

The payoff: Since last summer, it has picked up about 13 tons (26,500 pounds) of garbage out of the Hillsborough River and surrounding channels and in the waters around Bayshore Boulevard and Davis Islands, Spence-Howell said.

Why it matters: That trash endangers the animals that call Tampa Bay’s waterways home, including manatees, dolphins, birds, otters and turtles. Plastic, Styrofoam and other debris can be mistaken for food by these critters who may end up choking on or getting stuck in the debris.

How it works: The boat runs 10 hours a day four days a week and takes a different route each day. Two adjustable metal pieces extend from the twin-hull vessel and capture debris and trash.

  • Then, a conveyor belt takes the material into a storage hold on board.

State of play: Among the skimmer’s typical haul are plastic bags, floating plastic foam, plastic drink bottles and caps, yard waste, timber and potato chip bags.

  • Boat operators have seen some unexpected stuff, too. They picked up a 12-foot buoy bumper that looked like it was from a large vessel and donated it to the American Victory Ship & Museum.

What they're saying: "We are surprised to see the amount of indoor and lawn furniture that makes it into the waterways," Spence-Howell said.

  • At the end of each day, the waste is taken to the city's waste-to-energy facility, which generates enough electricity to power 15,000 homes per month.

The big picture: Trash skimmers are used around the country in places like Washington, D.C., and New Jersey, per the New York Times.

  • Baltimore's Mr. Trash Wheel has become a city icon and has spawned a family of trash skimmers, including a feminist Professor Trash Wheel and a witchy Gwynnda the Good Wheel of the West.

Yes, but: While the skimmers are effective at collecting litter we can see, some of the most insidious trash is too small to skim.

  • An estimated 4 billion particles of microplastics — which are less than one-eighth of an inch long — are in the waters of Tampa Bay, according to a 2019 study from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and Eckerd College.
  • Researchers found a high frequency of microplastics in the digestive tracts of necropsied manatees, who likely ate them in seagrass beds.

Between the lines: Florida has preemptive laws that researchers say hamper the fight against microplastics, since they prohibit statewide bans on plastic bags and polystyrene materials like Styrofoam containers.

  • Tampa and St. Petersburg have their own policies restricting single-use plastics and Styrofoam.

What's next: Put your own litter skimmers to use by volunteering at a Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful community cleanup event. The next one is July 5.


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