Brazos river trash

Baylor University students Jason Czarnecki and Tami Harvey spend the Friday lunch hour along a largely trash-free riverfront in downtown Waco. Because of public pressure, the city of Waco has been more focused on picking up trash that collects along the Brazos River through town after rainfalls.

Staff photo — Bill Whitaker

Last year at this time, our streets were littered with an assortment of discarded everything, mostly plastics. Plastic forks, plastic straws, plastic drink lids, plastic grocery bags, plastic water bottles, plastic cigarette butts, plastic wrapping, plastic Tic Tac boxes, plastic injection-molding Barbie Doll display packaging — really, too many to list. But if you don’t believe me, go for a stroll down the River Walk, especially after a good rain, as it all heads to the Gulf of Mexico, destined for a soupy, murky degradation of micro-plastics.

Our lives have become plastic, but we have become immune to seeing it. This year it seems there’s just as much.

Chuck Dowdell, city deputy director of public works, made clear several months back that the city of Waco cannot keep up with our litter. It needs citizens to help. Seems reasonable. We made it, right? So we pitched in and several anti-litter groups emerged: Group W Bench Litter Patrol, church groups and local fishermen such as the group Fish On Waco. Keep Waco Beautiful offered supplies in this Herculean effort. Yet people still live as if litter, once out of hand, is gone. Check any fast-food place at any hour (except In N Out Burgers; their place is immaculate all the time). We estimate that this year volunteers have picked up at least 200,000 pounds of trash on our Waco streets, alleys, vacant lots, Cameron Park, city parks, state highways and Interstate 35.

Our cities, states and federal government cannot keep a lid on litter, nor can the rest of the world. Some 18.2 trillion pounds of plastics have been produced since the 1950s, according to USA Today.

Plastics don’t biodegrade. Those trillion pounds of plastic are still with us. Without recycling, most plastics end up in landfills. Our living oceans that supply our seafood, provide recreation and give us natural wonders such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (which is ailing) are suffocating from these plastics. Fish have bits of plastic in their stomachs, turtles grow with six-pack plastic rings choking them, whales suffocate from tons of plastics they have to filter through for a meal. On land cows and goats eat retail plastic bags because they’re looking for food — a source of real anger for ranchers when they die from ingested plastic. And all this because, once out of our hands, the convenience of plastics is…..gone, right?

When highway lawn mowers cut the overgrown weeds and wildflowers every month or so, what’s the one thing we see the most? Partially shredded plastic bags, water bottles, Styrofoam cups, green straws, candy wrappers, cigarette butts and cigarette butts — lots of cigarette butts. Most likely they have been cut and cut and cut again, but it doesn’t go away. Some is bagged. Have you noticed how many of those full clear plastic garbage bags dot the road after a state transportation crew tackles a roadway? Probably one every 10 feet with 60 pounds each. Yet much is missed.

We must report this trash problem when it rears its ugly head. I want to make sure every citizen knows this very scary, unfortunate fact: If you see a discarded mattress on a vacant lot and don’t report it, it stays there. If you see a few bags of trash dumped by the side of the road and don’t report it, it stays there. When you do report it, expect to see whatever you reported stay there untouched for a minimum of three weeks while the landowner is contacted. Another week to bid out the cleanup job.

The city of Waco often takes its time to get to the scene after a call about trash. If a call is made about trash on state or federal roads, reaction time is quicker but still takes days. Yet this is ultimately our fault. Texas spends $50 million per year (or $7 per person) to clean up litter and illegal dump sites. Don’t Mess With Texas? It obviously just doesn’t have the ring it used to.

How can we turn this around? It starts with proper education of our children. That’s who we want to protect, right? When we were young, the message was there, but we have chosen to live the life of convenience in plastics. Now our children and their children live in our refuse. And still we don’t see the problem. We have to lead by example and speak up when we see something.

One day at Walmart I witnessed a lady loading her trunk with groceries and a single-use plastic bag blew out and came my way. I chased it down (and with considerable effort). The lady appeared stupefied. She asked why I was making such a fuss: “It’s only trash!”

A young lady was chucking tortillas off our beautiful Waco Suspension Bridge one evening. I stopped and asked if she considered the environmental impact of what she was doing. She packed up, including the plastic wrapper she had tied on the girder.

State Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson believed in me. After I visited his office, he got busy. He helped craft and introduce HB 1884, which is now law and allows judges sentencing individuals for littering or dumping crimes to impose up to 60 hours of community service, appropriately spent cleaning up trash in addition to any monetary fine warranted. (And, yes, cigarette butts are littering.)

Increasingly, governments (Botswana, Cameroon, Kenya, Morocco, Rwanda, South Africa, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, Brazil, Chile and Colombia) are banning or placing levies on plastic bags. Here in the United States, Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle have plastic-bag bans. One Austin resident told me: “One day my fence was littered with plastic bags; after the ordinance passed…none!

Progress is being made. The Group W Bench Litter Patrol recognizes individuals caught in the act of properly disposing litter and awards a Gold Star Award to businesses that show dedication in keeping a tidy place. Recently, Casa de Castillo, Tejun The Texas Cajun and Fast Eddie’s have been honored. Keep Waco Beautiful honored us with its 2017 Litter Prevention Award. And TxDOT has announced the Group W Bench Litter Patrol will have its own Adopt-A-Highway section.

It’s an honor to be a clean junkie for Waco. Smokey the Bear once said: “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Same goes in this instance: Only you can prevent litter! Take pride in our city; we have a lot to protect. Join our Facebook page to read interesting articles, learn of our next cleanup and help us report code enforcement issues. Things are, after all, picking up!

Founder of Group W Bench Litter Patrol, Bruce Huff is a disabled, 64-year-old multiple sclerosis trainee and Navy submarine veteran from the Vietnam era. He lives in Hewitt.