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Tampa's latest solution to its litter problem? A trash-collecting boat

A white and blue boat makes small waves along a river. A man in reflective gear picks up trash with a long net.
Jack Prator
WUSF Public Media
The Litter Skimmer drifts down local waterways at walking speed, collecting the trash in its way. It can hold up to three tons of garbage.

The city of Tampa unveiled the $565,000 vessel In July, after two years of searching for the most efficient way to clean up local waterways.

To combat pollution in the waters of Tampa Bay, the city of Tampa has launched what's called the Litter Skimmer.

Like a street cleaner for local waterways, the boat collects trash by skimming the surface and up to 3 feet underwater.

The nautical garbage truck gets its name from the flipper-like arms that scoop up debris of varying shapes and sizes. The trash it collects moves along a conveyor belt and is deposited into the boat's garbage bin.

So far, it has picked up half a ton of trash in its first two weeks.

Boat operator Walt Townsend spends eight hours a day navigating around downtown Tampa's waterways. He finds everything from plastic cups to 4-feet long pieces of driftwood.

"A lot of people may not realize, you know, they see the trash in the water. But when they see a piece of wood, 'oh it's organic it's no harm,' ” Townsend said. “But those could easily be a navigational hazard for the boaters and kayakers out there."

A man on a boat holds up a large piece of wood and points
Jack Prator
WUSF Public Media
Walt Townsend maneuvers the Litter Skimmer down Tampa's waterways for eight hours each day, four days a week.

Townsend said while he's seen a lot of plastic bags and cups, he also finds large debris that could be hazardous to boaters.

“There is a big element of safety that we are taking care of as well,” said Chuck Conklin, the city’s solid waste manager.

Two years ago, Conklin was tasked with finding a solution for Tampa Bay’s litter problem.

“This is a reaction to the disease,” Conklin said. “It's the medicine that will treat the symptoms. The real issue is preventing the waste from ever getting into the river and into the bay.”

The boat cost the city $565,000, but Conklin said it was worth every cent.

The Litter Skimmer can hold three tons of trash, but the crew hasn't collected that much in one trip.

“Look at the type of debris that we're collecting. That's quite a lot of weight for — I mean organic debris weighs a lot — but then the bottles and cans, they don't weigh much of anything,” Conklin said.

a pile of trash and debris are collected in a blue, metal bin
Jack Prator
WUSF Public Media
The Litter Skimmer can hold up to three tons of garbage. But the crew said they haven't filled it up in one trip, yet.

Townsend spent 27 years in the Navy and said operating this tiny vessel is "too much fun."

He's even looking for trash while off-duty.

"Every time I'm driving over the bridges or going down Bayshore, I'm constantly scanning the water. Looking to see what's out there where to go for next week,” Townsend said. “Where do I need to go?”

The boat is even equipped with a water cannon that the crew can aim at litter that is up against the seawall to push it back into the path of the Litter Skimmer.

The inside of a boat has two joysticks and an array of buttons
Jack Prator
WUSF Public Media
The boat is controlled using two joysticks that control each of the Litter Skimmer's propellers.

Conklin said the city is still looking to see where the boat can improve. He wants to attach cameras on either side of the vessel, which would help the crew get a better look at trash they might otherwise miss.

He also said adding more operators would allow the Litter Skimmer to run its routes six days a week instead of the current three days.

“We do have plans for the future,” Conklin said. “And so far, this is a big success. So far, people are excited about it.”

Jack Prator is the WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for summer of 2022.
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