Tackling Plastic Pollution and Improving a Community in Atlanta

By Michele White, CAE, IOM | Posted on October 16, 2019

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We all are aware of plastics contaminating our waterways. An average of 8.8 million tons of plastic waste enters our oceans from waterways across the globe each year. And the news continually features stories of cities trying to combat litter and plastic waste issues. States and municipalities are implementing bans or extra charges for single-use bags and straws, as well as mandatory recycling programs.

Whatever the method, communities across the country are trying to keep their public places and waterways clean from litter and create healthy ecosystems. While the problem spans the globe, the solutions can start right at home in our parks.

A Watershed of Importance in Atlanta

In September, NRPA kicked off a partnership to tackle this problem and to benefit the local community in a park located in Atlanta’s Proctor Creek watershed. This watershed flows through several Northwest Atlanta neighborhoods, which are home to approximately 60,000 people and have served as an incubator for African American civil rights leaders, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Julian Bond and Andrew Young. These neighborhoods are also home to many historically black universities and colleges. However, decades of disinvestment and the legacy of discriminating policies, such as redlining, continue to create environmental, health and economic challenges for the residents.

In response to these challenges, residents have been working to clean up Proctor Creek for more than 100 years. One of the focuses of these efforts has been the removal of trash from the waterway. While the city of Atlanta has been working with the community for many years to address issues around litter and illegal dumping, storms still wash significant amounts of trash into Proctor Creek.

Making a Difference, One Trash Trap at a Time

NRPA decided to make a difference in Atlanta by testing local solutions to the problem of trash accumulation, while strengthening the community through green jobs training and recycling education programs. We are partnering with The Coca-Cola Company, the city of Atlanta, the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, Groundwork Atlanta, Park Pride and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 4 for this work. Through this project, we have installed trash-catchment systems in the Proctor Creek watershed to help protect the city’s waterways.

Through this project, the city of Atlanta and its partners will be testing two technologies: the Litter Gitter and the Bandalong. The Litter Gitter, a small-stream litter collection device, uses floating booms that guide trash into a collection container. The Bandalong Litter Trap is a large industrial-grade aluminum system that uses the water’s current to guide debris into a litter trap. Neither trap requires nets or fencing, which protects fish and other wildlife from harm.

The systems will be installed with several goals, including:

  • improving water quality and stream habitat by removing trash from waterways heavily impacted by waste;
  • collecting data on the amounts and types of trash;
  • disposing of it properly, including recycling and reusing recyclables when possible;
  • engaging the public on the importance of recycling and properly disposing of trash to prevent it from entering waterways; and
  • creating local green jobs for the communities in which the traps are located.

Currently, five Litter Gitters are installed at three different park locations in the Proctor Creek watershed, including Grove Park, Center Hill Park and Proctor Creek Greenway – Boyd Elementary. The Bandalong will be installed in early 2020 at the site of the future Proctor Creek park.

Expanding Green Jobs and Recycling Programs

Through this program, local community members will become members of the green workforce as they become trained on how to maintain the traps and learn how to use the Escaped Trash Assessment Protocol (ETAP) system to collect data on the trash captured in the traps. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Trash Free Waters Program created the ETAP system, which offers an easy way to collect reliable data on the trash that threatens the health of our waterways and communities.

The Coca-Cola Company provided a grant to NRPA to support the city of Atlanta’s installation of these devices at four different park sites throughout the watershed. The Proctor Creek grant helps support The Coca-Cola Company’s global World Without Waste goal to recycle and reuse the equivalent of 100 percent of the bottles and cans it sells by 2030. Coca-Cola plans on working with the Proctor Creek partners to recycle and reuse the bottles collected through the new trash-catchment systems.

NRPA looks forward not only to sharing the impacts these technologies will make in the Proctor Creek watershed, but also to sharing how these technologies could be used to solve problems in your own community.

Michele White, CAE, IOMis NRPA’s Conservation Program Manager.