Project pulls trash from stormwater systems and collects helpful data for protecting waterways.
The buildup of trash in stormwater systems is a major problem for many utilities. Last May, the city of South Portland, Maine, and some of its residents got together, along with help from Portland-based Hydro International, to tackle the problem with a cleanup project that removed 1,890 gallons of trash in the Long Creek Watershed.
The action, coordinated by the Cumberland Country Soil and Water Conservation District, as a contractor of the Long Creek Watershed Management District and aided by Fairchild Semiconductor, was similar to beach cleanups held in many parts of the country where trash, particularly plastic, is removed on a regular basis. Development in the LCW over several decades has converted the landscape from mostly forests and fields to commercial, light industrial, retail and transportation uses. The LCW is identified as an urban impaired watershed that requires action.
As a water-focused engineering and manufacturing firm, Hydro International staff volunteered to help with the cleanup. The trash was taken to the company’s facility to evaluate the types of trash that most often make it into the water, and best practices to help minimize this ongoing problem.
“The Long Creek is in our backyard and we were happy to help in a cleanup effort,” says Jeremy Fink, a product development engineer with Hydro International. “Despite the cleanup, the area continues to amass significant volumes of trash in spite of stormwater remediation efforts. The community embraced the initiative and is more aware of its impacts on the environment. The trash was used as part of a study to advance the development of stormwater treatment systems, such as trash screens, which will be used across the globe. In understanding trash composition, including the material type and size ratios, it will influence development of future trash screening systems.”
The research was translated into a study entitled New England Trash Study: Long Creek Watershed (written by Fink and Bridget Domareki).
Opportunity to protect
In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined that certain stormwater discharges were contributing to degraded water quality in Long Creek. As the result of a community-based watershed management plan implemented by the Long Creek Watershed Management District, the district has become a leader in implementing stormwater treatment technologies.
Long Creek was identified as an urban impaired watershed, and with funding from the EPA and guidance from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, along with input from various stakeholders, a variety of stormwater treatment solutions were implemented. These measures included tree box filters, media filters, storage chambers, pervious pavement, bioretention cells, detention basins and gravel wetlands.
“Despite the cleanup efforts, the area surrounding Long Creek where the cleanup took place still amasses a significant amount of trash,” Fink says. “When storms occur, that debris makes its way into drainage lines and from there into the watershed unless it’s appropriately screened out.
“Much of the nonbiodegradable trash that you see on land will end up in the water — lakes, rivers or oceans — where it will do the most damage to the environment, particularly to aquatic life,” he adds. “Birds, fish and other wildlife consume these floating pollutants and die. The ripple effect is that after animals die, the plastic bottle caps, food wrappers and beverage straws re-enter the ecosystem by way of a rain and threaten the life of other animals.”
Fink’s message is clear: “No amount of trash can safely be assimilated into a natural ecosystem.”
The Hydro International study analyzed all 54 bags (1,890 gallons/583 pounds) of trash that was collected and the breakdown was thus: food/beverage packaging — 39 percent; plastic — 31 percent; paper — 17 percent; polystyrene — 4 percent; metal — 2 percent; clothes — 1 percent; cigarette butts — .5 percent.
“The breakdown may be similar to other northeastern sites, but this can only be confirmed with future studies,” Fink says. “Knowing what is backing stormwater systems and the time it takes for these materials to break down will help us produce smarter designs for new stormwater treatment systems such as screens, separators and filters.”
The study stresses that 80 percent of trash that ends up in water is generated on land, pointing out that a recent city of Los Angeles study of trash found on land compared to trash in the water demonstrated that plastics “make up a significantly higher percentage of trash found in water” and that “the avenue by which most of waterborne trash is able to reach bodies of water is via stormwater drainage systems. While some states (California) and cities (Baltimore) have a zero tolerance for trash discharging from their runoff, most areas of the country leave it to the discretion of the civil engineers overseeing development and redevelopment projects to decide if trash screening is necessary.”
The implications of inaction and neglect are clear.
“If it’s not specifically required of them to take action, and there is an additional cost to their clients, many engineers are unlikely to recommend a screening option,” Fink says.
Damon Yakovleff from the Cumberland County Soil & Water Conservation District was pleased with the turnout of more than two-dozen volunteers who helped with the cleanup.
“The volunteers put in a high level of effort,” Yakovleff says. “They enjoyed the ability to make a highly visible, material difference in the quality of their local environment. Many of the volunteers also enjoyed learning about watershed management and strategies for improving water quality. I am certain that many would be willing to help out again.”
Yakovleff believes that the greater community is more aware of the problem of litter entering waterways. “But a lot more still needs to be done as far as actions to add more receptacles,” he says. “This should include a larger effort to collect cigarette butts as well, especially as smokers are driven further afield due to smoking bans. This event was facilitated by the United Way Day of Caring event, which is a nationwide program. If other cities want to emulate this event they could likely leverage the efforts of United Way and other organizations promoting public service.”
There are also additional devices that can be placed directly in stormwater collections systems to prevent trash from entering local waterways, but since these devices typically require more frequent and regular maintenance that add to municipal costs, they are not widely used.
As for the Long Creek Watershed, one cleanup project, however successful, won’t prevent trash from building up again. Some has already returned.
“It is difficult to measure how much debris has accumulated since the cleanup event,” Yakovleff says. “Overall, I would say the area is still cleaner than before the event. Based on what I have seen, a fair amount of lighter debris has accumulated, but there are fewer heavier items. The district is working to provide education and outreach about the need for proper waste management, such as keeping dumpster lids closed and monitoring for illegal dumping. It is possible additional stream cleanups with media outreach will take place as well.”
Annual cleanups provide an opportunity to highlight the importance, and necessity, of partnerships between various interest groups such as nonprofits, businesses and municipalities.
“These cleanups are a helpful tool for providing outreach, not just about waste management but about the need for better stormwater management generally,” Yakovleff says. “Before the event, many participants only had an abstract awareness of the stream.”