Trash Free Waters

A collaborative effort to remove and reduce marine debris in Tampa Bay


Trash Free Waters (TFW) is an EPA initiative designed to reduce the amount of trash entering our rivers, lakes, streams, and creeks by preventing waste at its source, deploying devices to remove debris from the water, and investing in research that improves our understanding of how trash enters our waterways in the first place.

Through this work, participants in the TFW project aided in the development of effective solutions that reduce trash pollution and minimize its associated environmental and public health risks.

Since 2019, TBEP has been implementing the TFW initiative in the Tampa Bay watershed alongside 5 partner organizations. Together, we’ve deployed and collected information from 12 litter collection devices in Pinellas, Manatee, and Hillsborough Counties.

The goal of the project was to inform a data-driven, Litter Management Plan Guidance Document for use by stakeholders in Tampa Bay and the broader Gulf of Mexico region. The plan provides specific and actionable steps, as well as case studies, to help coastal communities reduce marine debris at its source through partnerships among individuals, community-based organizations and private businesses.

The Team

Marine-based litter is a complex issue that requires an in-depth understanding of how trash moves throughout a watershed. Our partners have spent years studying and capturing trash both locally and throughout the nation. When they aren’t in the field collecting data, they’re busy engaging their respective communities in litter removal initiatives.

A list of the TFW team partners
Mobile Bay National Estuary Program Logo
Mobile Bay National Estuary Program Logo
Keep Pinellas Beautiful Logo
Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful Logo
Keep Manatee Beautiful Logo
Osprey Initiative Logo

How does trash enter the water?

Eighty percent of marine debris originates on land. Most of this trash gets into our waterways through stormwater. Stormwater originates when rain falls on an impermeable surface, like roads, roofs, and sidewalks. To reduce flooding, stormwater conveyances have been developed to transport stormwater directly to Tampa Bay without any treatment. Along its journey, stormwater collects everything it touches, including trash and debris left in roads and on sidewalks. This means the receipts and trash seen in a grocery store parking lot will eventually end up in Tampa Bay. 

What about Tampa Bay makes marine debris removal so tricky?

One thing about Tampa Bay is…it rains, a lot! Especially in the summer. With enough rain, a device that was empty at 2 PM can overflow with trash by 4 PM as debris travels downstream. This requires our team to make frequent site visits to make sure trash hasn’t escaped the device, and that the device is still fully functioning. 

Do these devices harm the environment? What about fish, manatees, etc.?

If properly deployed, these devices allow marine creatures to move under them without impact. In fact, birds and turtles are often observed resting on top of some devices.

The Devices

A LitterGitter in the middle of a stream
Litter Gitter

Developed by Osprey Initiative, the Litter Gitter involves a boom system similar to that of a WaterGoat, except that it funnels debris into a large steel box at the center. This collection box reduces the amount of trash that escapes the boom during periods of high flow, typically after a large rain event.

A watergoat in the middle of a stream

You might have seen this device deployed throughout the Tampa Bay area before. Simple booms are attached to both sides of a river bank or stormwater outfall pipe by strong stakes. They are highly adaptable devices and make for great community adoption projects.

A Seabin suspended in the water

Seabins require open-water areas and are better suited for marinas where boom systems aren’t as easy to install. Seabins collect floating debris by pumping water into the device. Newer editions include filters capable of collecting microplastics and fibers.

The Data

The most effective way to reduce marine debris is by stopping it at its source. To understand the sources of this pollution, we create a litter profile by cataloging the trash collected during every device cleanup event using the EPA’s Escaped Trash Assessment Protocol (ETAP). ETAP is a protocol that provides a standardized method for collecting and assessing litter. By recording what kinds of trash we collect, its condition, and where it was found, we can better understand the source and origins of our region’s trash.

A line of glass bottles on display

Debris collected are separated into 5 categories.

A blue illustration of a plastic bottle
A blue illustration of a paper take-out box
A blue illustration of a glass bottle
A blue illustration of an aluminum bottle
A blue illustration of a PPE mask
A list of the item categories. Blue icons.

Explore the Data Collected at Specific Locations Yourself!

We developed a data visualization page to understand what the primary litter types were at particular locations in the Tampa Bay watershed. Not surprisingly, plastic-based items dominated most of the collections. Based on these results, reducing and eliminating the use of plastics, including single-use plastics, should be a primary strategy to control this pervasive litter type in the Tampa Bay watershed.

Below is a snapshot of the data collected. You can explore and manipulate the data more through the data visualization page link.

Trash Free Waters data summary.

This plot shows the type of litter and debris counted at each site and event. The summaries show the total count divided by the number of events at each site, with colors showing the magnitude. Note that reported counts at a site are from a subset of the total bags collected at a site and date if more than two bags were collected.

A Litter Management Plan Template for Gulf of Mexico Communities

These data helped to inform the creation of a Litter Management Plan Template for use by other Gulf of Mexico communities. The plan outlines some simple steps and lessons learned to help individuals, community-based organizations and private companies (restaurants, coastal businesses, etc.) contribute to marine debris reduction efforts throughout the Gulf. It also serves as a guide and shareable resource for community-based organizations interested in collecting marine debris data using the ETAP methodology.


While you’re here … consider how you can personally take steps to reduce marine debris in your community. Click the link below that best describes the relevant pointers of interest to you.

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