USF students Keep Tampa Beautiful with river clean-up

Besides being Tampa’s primary source of drinking water, the Hillsborough River serves as an important ecosystem for Florida wildlife, as well as a popular source of recreation for many Floridians. 

However, like many other large rivers, it is still susceptible to pollution and littering.

In order to help restore the river to its natural state, students from several USF environmental organizations will participate in the Trash Free Waters Initiative on Saturday at the Hillsborough River State Park. The event is hosted by Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful (KTBB), a local affiliate of Keep America Beautiful, the nation’s largest volunteer-based community. 

The initiative is the result of a partnership between KTBB and Nestle Waters North America, the producer of Zephyrhills water, to raise awareness about aquatic trash in local waterways, particularly the Hillsborough River. The Hillsborough River State Park is the last of four cleanup locations in the initiative.

During the Hillsborough River cleanup, student volunteers will collect trash from the river as well as catalog what trash they find and how much of it they collect, according to Tom Damico, KTBB’s environmental program coordinator. Once compiled, this information will be sent to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other environmental organizations so officials can learn more about what kind of trash is polluting waterways.

“We promote it as a way for volunteers to ‘be a scientist for a day,’” Damico said. “We try to pair them in groups of five or 10, and … we’ll have one person in each of those groups be the data recorder. The (other volunteers) will call out, ‘I have a soda can here’ or ‘I have a piece of plastic here’ and they’ll record the things that they find.”

Damico said this initiative is also important due to current EPA studies which claim 80 percent of all the trash that is not properly disposed of washes down sewers and ends up in local waterways. 

Kirsti Martinez, president of the Student Environmental Association (SEA) at USF, said it is important for students to participate in events like the Trash Free Waters Initiative to be active citizens and help support the Tampa community outside of USF. 

“Some of the greatest things that a community can do for itself is making sure that it’s clean and that we’re being responsible for the way that we treat the environment because we’re living within it,” Martinez said. “It’s important to constantly show that USF cares about our community outside of campus.”

As USF’s central environmental organization, SEA is one of the main USF student groups involved in the initiative and Martinez said it tries to get involved with KTBB events at least twice a year. 

More recently created student environmental organizations such as Roots and Shoots will also be participating in the initiative, and the club’s director, Kaitlin Deutsch, said the collaboration with SEA for this initiative marks the organization’s first cleanup event.

“This is the first year that Roots and Shoots has been an organization, so we’ve never done this sort of thing before,” Deutsch said. “We’re really excited to get our name out there and hopefully continue this collaboration with SEA for a lot of other events in the community.” 

While the Hillsborough River State Park is the last location of this initiative, Damico said KTBB will continue its partnership with Nestle Waters and other environmental organizations to plan additional waterway cleanups in the future.

The Trash Free Waters Initiative takes place Saturday at Hillsborough River State Park from 9 a.m. to noon.