Let’s Talk Trash – How SPLASh Volunteers are Cleaning up the Texas Coast

By Kenzie Cherniak

Ok, we don’t mean to gossip… But did you hear that Texas is the “trashiest” state? Yep, you read that right. Texas has the highest average weight of trash debris per mile surveyed of any state in the nation, according to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Ocean Conservancy. As a result, trash accumulates on the Texas coast ten times faster than it does on the coasts of other Gulf states. 

This is because waterways in Texas originate at the top of the state, and all flow down to the coast, carrying the whole state’s trash along with them to dump on our shorelines. And this is bad for Texans, bad for our environment and our wildlife, and bad for our local economies. No one wants to spend their summer vacation on a beach littered with bottles and cans. 

As Texans, we have a great deal of pride in our beautiful state. Texans don’t want the title of “trashiest” state. A thriving, pristine coastline is the perfect pairing for our rolling West Texas plains, bubbling Hill Country springs, and dense East Texas pine forests.

So, how do conservation organizations get ALL Texans to join the efforts to keep our state clean and our ecosystems thriving? How can we get more people exposed to, passionate about, and dedicated to conservation-based volunteering? 2023 Conservation Wrangler – Stopping Plastics and Litter Along Shorelines (SPLASh) – has a solution.

Creating Conservation-Minded Volunteers

SPLASh was formed in 2020 to address the overlapping issues of trash pollution and bird conservation in the greater Houston-Galveston region. Since its inception, SPLASh has been widely successful in cleaning up the Texas coastline, educating young Texans about marine debris and litter cleanup, and collecting data on the amount and impact of trash in the Galveston Bay watershed. Through the Conservation Wrangler partnership, TxN has been working with SPLASh to replicate and amplify their program impacts across the Texas coast and into internal bayous and waterways. 

To date, SPLASh has engaged 3,301 volunteers in cleanup events. These volunteers have removed over 39,197 pounds of trash from 839 acres of beach and bayou habitats.​ Volunteers don’t just provide support by picking up trash at cleanup events, though. SPLASh provides opportunities to get more involved in community science by collecting data and inputting those metrics into the Texas Litter Database. At every cleanup, volunteers collect GPS points, weather data, and the weight of each bag of trash collected. SPLASh also leads litter transects to quantify the types of trash and materials that are found during cleanups. SPLASh has been consistently conducting data collection since the program’s inception, which has allowed them to develop an excellent baseline from which to track program progress and impacts. 

TxN recognizes the SPLASh program as a leader in conservation, and as a model that can easily be replicated across the state. The program’s dedication to metrics collection, community engagement, and inclusion of accessibility best practices in all facets of the program make SPLASh a highly successful and sustainable model. 

Stopping Plastics and Litter Along Shorelines (SPLASh) – TxN 2023 Conservation Wrangler from Texan by Nature on Vimeo.

Lessons Learned – Increasing Accessibility

Volunteering is a fantastic way for different parties to learn more about your organization’s mission, and how they can help. If your volunteer programs are accessible to all, you can even turn one-time volunteers into regular participants and major contributors to your mission. There are also major economic benefits that can be claimed from education and volunteering programs. TxN worked with SPLASh to measure the impacts of their work through the creation of a Texan by Nature Return on Conservation™ Index. The TxN ROC Index™ aligns local conservation efforts like SPLASh cleanups and educational outreach to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals with verifiable data to demonstrate how they address global goals like Good Health and Well-Being, Quality Education, and Life on Land. 

Since 2020, 2,730 SPLASh volunteers contributed 6,300 hours toward clean-ups, providing a $109K offset to local governments for waste management. SPLASh has also reached 4,900 students through its educational programming and field trips. Engaging these students in nature-based activities provides a $45K value to the community.

Here are a few examples of best practices that SPLASh utilizes to increase access to their programming:

  • Language Inclusion
    • Translation of materials into the 2-3 top spoken languages in your city/region (tip: consult a native speaker to ensure that grammar and colloquialisms are represented accurately and professionally!)
    • Enhancing educational documents: Include definitions, non-technical language, and images to further represent concepts and ideas shared.
  • Recognition of Ability Differences
    • SPLASh recognizes that every volunteer has different mental, emotional, and physical capacities, and may need additional accommodations to feel comfortable. A few ways to provide accommodations include:
    • Providing free access to trash grabbers and all tools needed to safely clean up trash. Partnering with other organizations that provide accessible tools (beach wheelchairs) and locations (paved sidewalks).
  • Reducing Barriers to Entry
    • Financial: SPLASh has developed of free educational materials and activities to send out to schools, such as educator guides, coloring sheets, virtual lessons, marine debris toolkits, and more.
    • Physical/Material: Providing free sustainable/reusable items (reusable tote bags, metal water bottles, reusable food storage containers, fruit and vegetable bags) for volunteers to take home and continue to make a positive

At TxN, our vision is for every business, every Texan to participate in conservation and for Texas to be a model of collaborative conservation for the world.

By implementing these simple practices to make volunteer opportunities more accessible to all audiences, conservation organizations can invite more Texans to get involved in local volunteer efforts. This model can easily be replicated across all programs, and across all reaches of the state and beyond. And it should be replicated, so that Texas conservation efforts benefit from more volunteers, and more Texans take ownership to keep our state healthy.

Learn more about how the SPLASh program is getting Texans involved in conservation here.