Partner Spotlight - Texans for Clean Water.png

Texans for Clean Water

Maia met with Alice on April 23, 2024 to share more about Texans for Clean Water's work.

Maia Corbitt is the President and driving force behind Texans for Clean Water which is a Texas Children in Nature Network partner. This Texas Longhorn has been working on water and waste issues in Texas for over 20 years now. Tell us more about yourself.

I started my career in the water and waste nexus with the Lower Colorado River Authority right out of college in Austin. Then I worked with the State of Texas Alliance for Recycling, before making my way into the law and lobby side. I’ve been with Texans for Clean Water for about seven years. I became a passionate advocate and jumped into the mission with both feet. I also work for the Garver Black Hilyard Family Foundation. It provides funding to organizations that work on helping communities with clean, green open spaces. It's a very good synergy.

I enjoy getting outside, getting on the Colorado River with kayaks and paddle boards. It's a beautiful thing to see clean water, it really is. I've become almost a one-trick pony. I'm always looking for bottles, cans and styrofoam on the sides of the waterways. I love taking my kids out into nature, which is another reason why I love the Texas Children in Nature Network. Not only because I think our missions are aligned, but I enjoy getting out in nature with my kiddos.

Please tell us about Texans for Clean Water and the work your organization is doing.

When getting out onto water and into nature in Texas, you see litter and trash, unfortunately. It’s our organization's mission to stop that from happening. Anything that you see on the road or on land is eventually going to blow or flow into a waterway. The data shows that we're one of the trashiest states per mile of roadway. All that stuff eventually drains into the Gulf of Mexico. We also have the trashiest beaches of the five Gulf states. That’s something we Texans for Clean Water are really trying to change. Our organization and the Garver Black Hilliard Family Foundation certainly support cleanup. In fact, the foundation supports Buffalo Bayou Partnership, which is also a Texas Children in Nature Network partner. They're a fantastic group with David “Bayou Dave” and Country Slim on the Bayou with essentially a giant vacuum cleaner. They work on the Bayou five days a week, every week of the year, sucking up trash off the top of the water for a seven mile segment of Buffalo Bayou which goes through the ship channel and right through downtown Houston. They pull between 12 and 15--sometimes even more—big dump-truck loads of trash every week out of that small segment. We work to prevent that waste from getting there in the first place, so we focus our efforts on waste and recycling collection to reduce the amount of litter in the waterways.

What are the main goals of this work?

People want vibrant communities with clean, green space to live, work, and play. Here in Texas, we're enormously proud of our waterways. They’re truly the lifeblood of the state. Our cities and towns have evolved and been built around waterways. Waterways are so important to recreation and tourism, to industry and manufacturing. Our collective role is to keep those waterways as clean as possible. So, our starting goal is to focus attention on the problem you can see with your own eyes, trash in waterways, but it is a problem with data-driven solutions. We work to highlight those solutions. It's our contention that this issue is more than just a nuisance. It’s a critical issue in Texas, and there are solutions. It’s a true economic hardship for the people of Texas who are trying to utilize these beautiful waterways. Oftentimes we see them blighted. That's a problem because we want children out in nature and able to experience nature in its cleanest, truest form.

Tell us a bit about how Texans for Clean Water works with policymakers.

We try to take folks out on the water to see for themselves. We also share lots of “dirty” pictures. Our board members go out and take pictures of waterways, and we show people that this is a critical problem. But we work to highlight positive solutions. We have supporting data. In fact, the Texas Litter database, which is held under Keep Texas Beautiful, is a data repository for litter pickups around the state. We use that data to show policymakers just what we're talking about. So much of it is plastic bottles. Drink containers are almost 10% of the litter picked up in Texas. We highlight that there are lessons learned as part of the research we supported at the national level with Keep America Beautiful. They did a 2020 litter study that showed in the 10 states where there are financial incentives for the public to collect and return bottles, those states had 50% less of those plastic bottles on roadways and consequently 30% less overall waterborne litter. That's impactful data. Again, we highlight to our policymakers that not only is this a real problem, but we also have the data to show what that problem is and the cost to communities. In Houston, the cost of litter was over $20 million per year, just picking up and throwing away somebody else's trash. Many other Texas cities are also finding it a real financial burden.

There is a way forward with a recycling refund program. Ten states now have a recycling program with a deposit on bottles. The oldest deposit system, started in Oregon almost 60 years ago, specifically to address the litter on beaches. Those states have either 5 cent or 10 cent refunds on bottles, and they have much less of that litter on the roadway.

Besides recycling centers, some states have reverse vending machines outside gas stations or grocery stores. Some states have sites where you drop off all your recycling in a bag and get money in your account through an app-based system. The point is there's lots of technology out there that can help build a collection system that gets material to recycling streams and out of regular streams. Consequently, much more of the plastic material is available to the recycling system. That is great for us. If those bottles and cans were nickels and dimes, we would not have them to pick up. We would love to be put out of business, quite frankly.

Data shows that so much of litter is beverage containers and things eaten away from home. It really revolves around changing the mindset that that bottle is trash and instead giving it a value, a 5 cent or 10 cent incentive to get it recycled.

Even us here in Texas, we used to have refill programs for milk bottles and the old soda bottles. A lot of us are old enough to remember that. We hope to tap into some of that, remembering it wasn't so difficult.

In other states, municipalities have started deposit recycling programs and then it progressed to the state level. Local governments here don’t have that ability with the way the solid waste regulations are constructed here in Texas. If folks do want to make a call to support these policies, I would say your state representative and local neighborhood beverage distributor are good places to start. On the industry side, these sorts of policies can be a real win for business. In fact, we have the largest P E T plastic recycler in the world in Dallas. Their plant can make used bottles into new bottles. They're importing empty plastic bottles from California and even internationally because in Texas we don't recycle enough to feed their manufacturing plant.

It’s the same with glass. And aluminum. We throw out more aluminum cans than any other state in the nation, almost a hundred million dollars’ worth of aluminum goes to the landfills every year. So, recycling based on financial incentives, recycling refunds on the plastic and aluminum products that are the most ubiquitous forms of litter are the most proven solutions. Recycling could feed the manufacturers…and not feed the waterways. That's the win-win.

Was your pilot program successful?

It was highly successful. We had lots of public participation, a real upward curve of participation and getting material back. I will say, this isn’t a competition with curbside recycling. We love curbside recycling, unfortunately there's so many places that don't have curbside: almost 80% of Texas cities. And frankly, people don't go home and throw trash out their kitchen windows. That's not where litter is coming from. It's from car windows and overflowing public trash cans, so putting infrastructure where people are using the products and convenient places people can take things, are necessary pieces to the puzzle. I think most people that have curbside think, “I recycle at home,” but when you're not at home, it can be hard to recycle. It would be nice if there was more public recycling so that you could just take care of it in the moment.

It would be wonderful if there's a little kiosk at the soccer or little league park that you could put all your bottles in and get a couple bucks back. That’s something the public could really engage in and the data proves it would be a phenomenal win for the environment by keeping materials out of waterways. Plus, a real success story economically, if we can keep the material that we use in Texas and remanufacture it in Texas into things that we need right here.

How does the work of Texans for Clean Water make a difference in children having a connection to nature?

We strongly believe that children should have access to nature and that nature should be unblighted by human carelessness. Quite frankly, that's what litter is. Littering the environment is just the epitome of human carelessness and children deserve better, nature deserves better. We've got to do a better job of utilizing resources. We can do better for our children, not only when they encounter nature but as they grow up and want to connect with nature. Texans throw out more aluminum cans than anybody else, and aluminum is a resource that is infinitely recyclable -- 80% of the aluminum ever mined is still in use.

Do you do any direct work with kids, or is it more about the bigger picture?

Sometimes we take older kids out on the boats to see litter. I must admit it's just little old me at Texans for Clean Water along with great board members and other organizations. So, we don’t work directly with kids but we support organizations that do. With the Texas Litter Database, we're arming children as they go into nature and encounter trash. They have something productive to do, instead of feeling powerless and being overwhelmed by trash. It makes a difference for people to share what they've found. With a methodology, we can make little citizen scientists and capture something that is not only meaningful for the story, but meaningful to the overall solution.

How can the Texas Children in Nature network be part of your work? How can we help you?

First of all, we were already aligned. We are working towards a very similar mission of clean water for children and multiple generations of children to enjoy. So, if you have folks going out and doing cleanups or going out into nature and they find trash and they want to channel that horrible feeling into positive action, they should visit the Texas Litter Database run by Keep Texas Beautiful (KTB). KTB has over 300 affiliates throughout the state, maybe one is in your hometown or your county. There’s also the Take Two for Texas methodology that asks you to take two minutes to stand and look around and count how many plastic bottles you see. That is a way to utilize bottles as a marker for all litter.

We’re taking a page from the Nurdle Patrol program run by the National Estuarine Research Reserve at Mission Aransas Pass. Nurdles are tiny, lentil size plastic pellets used to make bottles. Diane Wilson, San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper, started collecting nurdles in the water and worked with Jace Tunnell, Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies Director of Community Engagement, to establish a methodology. Citizen scientists are trained on how to use a transect and how to count nurdles in a certain timeframe and upload the location. That map and all those nurdles, those data points observed by citizen scientists, we're accepted into federal evidence for the first time ever in a lawsuit against Formosa Plastics.

A million dollars of the settlement was given to the Nurdle Patrol to continue the work of the citizen scientists. Formosa Plastic and other plastic manufacturers in Texas have agreed to much more stringent discharge permit levels. It was really a phenomenal success in how citizens and data can win concessions for the environment. With that example, we're saying let's have consistent data, let's have consistent methodology so we can get a true picture of the impact of this material on Texas.

Do you have ideas around that?

Yes, take the online training for Take 2 For Texas on the Texas Litter Database website. It's quite simple. Then whenever you're out and about, stop and Take Two minutes to complete a survey on aquatic trash. That helps. Here’s the link to the Take 2 For Texas survey.