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Local parks in Atlanta, Georgia, help solve the plastic-pollution problem
Plastic waste plagues communities across the world, often accumulating in waterways. An average 8.8 million tons of plastic waste enters our oceans from waterways around the world every year. While the problem spans the globe, the solutions begin locally. Over the past year and a half, the city of Atlanta, Georgia, and its partners have been testing solutions to plastic pollution in local parks throughout the city.
One of the results of decades of disinvestment in the neighborhoods of Atlanta’s Proctor Creek Watershed have been waterways disproportionately burdened by litter and trash pollution. In 2019, a community-driven litter and plastics reduction project kicked off as a partnership between Atlanta’s Parks and Recreation Department and Department of Watershed Management, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA), Groundwork Atlanta and Park Pride. Through their vision and with support from The Coca-Cola Company’s World Without Waste Campaign and NRPA, these neighborhoods have adopted innovative trash-catchment systems (trash traps) to help create cleaner and more vibrant waterways, parks and communities.
Over the past year, the community has combined two trash trap technologies with green jobs training and litter education programs. The trash traps, installed within Atlanta’s parks, are improving water quality and stream habitat by removing the waste that heavily impacts these urban waterways.
Since trash traps sit within Atlanta’s parks, community members can easily see the systems, discuss the topic of waste in waterways and participate in educational outreach programs on the importance of litter reduction. The maintenance of these systems created local green jobs — employees gather data on the material collected and then properly recycle, reuse or dispose of these materials.
A History of Proctor Creek
Proctor Creek, a nine-mile tributary of the Chattahoochee River located on Atlanta’s west side, runs through residential, industrial, commercial and parklands. This waterway and its tributaries connect more than 35 Atlanta neighborhoods, many with local and national historical significance. It sits within a watershed encompassing approximately 16 square miles that is home to approximately 60,000 people.
Proctor Creek has been plagued by pollution, especially escaped trash and illegal dumping. When combined with a history of community neglect and increasingly flashy flow characteristics (the rapid increase in flow shortly after precipitation and equally rapid return to base conditions shortly after), the litter creates an unsafe environment for the surrounding neighborhoods. Nearby areas have experienced environmental and health issues from numerous brownfields (polluted land that was previously developed and is not currently in use) and potential Superfund sites (polluted locations requiring a long-term response to clean up hazardous material, as designated under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980), impaired water quality, pervasive flooding and combined sewer overflows.
Atlanta’s Westside neighborhoods, English Avenue, Vine City, Castleberry Hill, Ashview Heights and the Atlanta University Center — home to several historically Black colleges and universities — served as an incubator for African American leaders of the civil rights movement. These communities were home to some of Atlanta’s most notable citizens, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Maynard Jackson, Andrew Young and Julian Bond. While these communities are hubs of African American culture in Atlanta, they are also among the most impoverished in the city with about 67 percent living below the federal poverty level.
The Project and Technology
The trash catchment effort in Proctor Creek began with a study by Georgia Tech students. They analyzed the watershed to provide recommendations for the placement of the traps and assisted with design calculations to determine the hydrologic loading of the traps (volume of water capable for the traps to handle).
Using information from the Georgia Tech report, the project team decided to test two different trap technologies:
- The Litter Gitter, produced by Osprey Initiative — a small-stream litter collection device that uses floating booms to guide trash into a collection container.
- The Bandalong Litter Trap, produced by Storm Water Systems Inc. — a large, industrial-grade aluminum system that uses the water’s current to guide debris into a litter trap.
These passive systems are designed to capture floating debris without trapping wildlife. They have few to no moving parts, require minimal maintenance beyond emptying collected trash from the systems and allow stream currents to move trash into the collection receptacle. The locations and types of trash traps installed were selected to match the characteristics of the stream. The Bandalong’s heavy-duty construction and multiple anchoring points make it ideal for the strong, sudden flows that occur in Proctor Creek, while the flexibility and compact nature of the Litter Gitter make it suitable for the smaller tributaries.
Initially, five Litter Gitters were installed at three different park locations in the watershed. The Bandalong is located at the site of the future Proctor Creek Park; this waterway is the largest of all the locations, and requires a system, such as the Bandalong, to withstand its larger flows and larger debris.
The technology providers were able to offer expertise and assistance for this project that proved invaluable. When considering what technology to use, some vendors offer training while others can provide full service for rental and maintenance, which are important considerations for a successful project.
Throughout the past year, the sites and the technology were evaluated for their effectiveness. Smaller traps that don’t require multiple anchoring points are able to be moved easily. While this allows for nimbleness, they also are more susceptible to impacts from debris and storm surge. The Georgia Institute of Technology’s pre-project evaluation of the watershed and possible locations proved vital; however, having the ability to move traps based on efficiency helped to ensure a flexible program.
Gathering the Data
Data collected by analyzing the trash captured by the different technologies provides insight into the amount and types of trash found in the watershed and can help identify potential sources for this trash. For example, older trash can indicate a historic dumping site, while newer trash can point to the need for improving the number, location and emptying of receptacles. The methodology used to collect this information is called Escaped Trash Assessment Protocol (ETAP), which was created by the Trash Free Waters Program of the EPA. It is an easy way to collect reliable data on trash found in waterways and communities. The ETAP data shows the weight of materials collected, the waste type (paper, metal, glass, plastic, etc.) and categorical amounts (bottles, chip bags, cups, cans, etc.). Data collected reveals trends at each location and additional mitigation and outreach that should be employed. Projects should carefully consider the level of data needed and the ways this data might be used to help advance efforts in the local community.
The Atlanta sites have collectively removed a total of 454.22 pounds of recyclables and 1,040.52 pounds of trash from the watershed through the end of June 2020. The higher-capacity Bandalong, which is in a larger body of water fed by tributaries, accounts for more than half the material collected, even though it was installed in November 2019. The details from the ETAP process have helped the partners identify litter trends in specific parts of the watershed that are helping them form strategies for outreach to the community, as well as businesses to help prevent waste from entering Proctor Creek.
Installing trash traps begs the question: Who will operate and maintain these devices? Groundwork Atlanta recognized this as an opportunity to increase green jobs and develop a workforce around the maintenance and operation of this technology in Atlanta. Through collaboration with Georgia Trade-Up, alongside the trash trap manufacturers, Groundwork Atlanta trained local crews on maintenance for each technology and methods to collect data utilizing ETAP. Currently, two teams each consisting of two to four local community members maintain both of the traps. Team members clean and collect materials from the traps on a regular maintenance schedule or after heavy rain.
By connecting Atlanta residents to employment created through this and other green infrastructure projects, benefits in local communities are multiplied. The value of investing in resources and people to help clean up the environment and maintain safer, healthier places to live, work and play cannot be understated.
Education and Outreach
WAWA initially planned to educate Proctor Creek-area high school students on nonpoint-source pollution (pollutants accumulated in precipitation runoff that enters into waterways from land) its impact on waterways, as well as ways to use the ETAP process to understand the types of waste in local waterways. Their initial tours focused on working with the maintenance team to clean out the traps and the ETAP sorting activity, along with discussing watershed dynamics and nonpoint (stemming from many places) and point-source (stemming from a single place) pollution. But as COVID-19 started to impact communities in the early spring, in-person educational outreach had to be reconsidered. With WAWA’s extensive experience with engaging the local community, they pivoted and are creating an online portal with integrated educational videos, engagement and learning outcomes to educate local groups through a virtual experience. This new platform will be able to virtually engage a broader audience while still allowing for the in-person educational experience when suitable.
Case Study for Others
The Proctor Creek project is helping the EPA and other cities and organizations learn how to incorporate trash trap technology and innovative workforces to address pollution in waterways.
“I believe that water issues are the largest and most immediate environmental and public health issues affecting the world right now,” says Andrew R. Wheeler, administrator of the EPA, in his 2019 remarks. Among those issues is litter in waterways; common trash from consumer goods is the major cause of pollution in our waterways and oceans. EPA is concerned about the effects of litter on the environment, wildlife and human health.
Partnerships are working to keep our public places and waterways clean from litter and create healthy ecosystems. Although it is a worldwide problem, solutions are being implemented within local urban communities, like Proctor Creek. “The Atlanta Department of Watershed Management is committed to improving the water quality in Proctor Creek and being a good steward of all our city’s 10 watersheds,” says interim Department of Watershed Commissioner Mikita K. Browning. “We look forward to working with and supporting our fellow community stakeholders and environmental partners through the Trash Trap initiative to help keep our local creeks and streams clear of trash and debris.”
Throughout the Proctor Creek project, other groups have reached out to discuss installing trash traps in their communities and to identify best practices and ways to replicate the program in other locations. It also contributed to the creation of The River Network’s newly released toolkit, Waste in Our Waters: A Community Toolkit for Aquatic Litter Removal. This toolkit has been released to help other organizations across the country explore the trash trap concept in their communities.
Several universities also have made a connection to discuss the impacts of the project and to use data collected to improve litter trap technology to spur future innovation in this area. New technology is continuing to surface in the trash trap arena and will only continue to expand the effectiveness of the technology to clean waterways.
Through the past year, plans have been made for how this project can continue impacting the watershed and what additional partners can help. Chattahoochee Riverkeeper (CRK), which was already working on a separate trash catchment program, will assist in stream litter collection efforts in Proctor Creek from a strategic environmental lens and help support the workforce development teams.
When undertaking a similar project, it is crucial to involve nonprofit, community, government and philanthropic partners to maximize the layered technological, environmental and socioeconomic impacts of these projects and retain a holistic vision for watershed restoration. With strong partnerships in place, this new innovative program will hopefully continue to benefit Atlanta and the Proctor Creek Watershed and serve as an example for other communities.
Special thanks to Glen Behrend (City of Atlanta, Department of Watershed Management); Cynthia Y. Edwards, PE (Region 4 Urban Waters, EPA); Carley Queen (Groundwork Atlanta); Darryl Haddock (West Atlanta Watershed Alliance); and Jordan Yu (Chattahoochee Riverkeeper) for the information they provided for this article.
Aaron Lee Wiener, PLA, is a Landscape Architect for City of Atlanta Department of Parks and Recreation, Office of Park Design (email@example.com). Michele White, CAE, IOM, is Conservation Program Manager at NRPA (firstname.lastname@example.org).