LUTZ — Cleaning up the shore of Lake Forest one recent Saturday morning, retired University of Miami education professor Anne Hocutt couldn't figure out why anyone would befoul such a pretty spot.
There were plastic soft drink bottles and plastic foam cups galore, but also plastic bags, soda cans, four black landscaping pots, a malt liquor bottle, a tennis ball, the plastic mouthpiece from a small cigar, the roof off a birdhouse and an old McCain-Palin yard sign.
"I never understood people who want to mess up nature," said Hocutt, a two-year resident of Lake Forest.
Who threw away that junk remains a mystery. But the two bags of trash Hocutt and others picked up that morning play a role in a new Hillsborough County program aimed at figuring out how litter ends up in local lakes, streams and ponds.
Launched over the summer, the Trash Tracker program enlists volunteers to pick up trash along waterways in their neighborhoods once a month and report the total number of bags collected to the county.
The goal is to get a picture of how storm sewers are carrying trash into local waterways. Officials will use that information to identify problem areas, manage trash problems and catch illegal dumpers.
The program was created after a litter summit in July hosted by county Commissioner Mark Sharpe. So far, the program has signed up two neighborhoods or groups in Lutz, one in Northdale, one near Lake Carroll and one in Ruskin.
"This is in its infancy," said John McGee, the county's stormwater environmental programs coordinator. "It costs us as a government very little to implement, but it potentially has great benefits."
Once a group or resident signs up for the program, the county sends a startup kit. The Trash Trackers then record how many bags of inorganic trash, such as bottles, cans and plastic, and organic trash, such as yard waste or tree trimmings, they pick up each month. The county picks up trash once it is collected.
Civic groups, neighborhood associations or others participating in the program also can get discounted leases on trash-catching devices or pickup services offered by private companies who become program sponsors.
McGee said one company has submitted the paperwork to become a sponsor. While county rules prohibited McGee from identifying the company before the sponsorship is approved, Pinellas County entrepreneur Mark Maksimowicz said his company had applied and was eager to become a sponsor.
Maksimowicz's company, New Earth Industries, makes something called the WaterGoat. It consists of a flexible floating boom and a net designed to catch waterborne debris as small as a cigarette butt. As part of the lease, his company comes by once a week and hauls away the trash caught by the goat. The company's prospective clients include anyone with a canal, retention pond or other body of water that needs to be cleaned regularly, including municipalities, homeowners associations, schools or companies.
Maksimowicz said he got the idea for the goat during a three-week cleanup of the Hillsborough River. During a rainstorm, he ducked under a bridge near Rome Avenue and watched as the storm sewer vomited out garbage.
"The trash and the cups and the paper were just shooting out," he said.
Maksimowicz said he expects to offer to sell or lease the WaterGoat to participants of the Trash Tracker program for prices that start at $800, with $35 to $100 weekly charges for cleanup. That's about half the regular price, he said.
At Lake Forest, civic leader Jim Griffin was one of the first people in the county to sign up for the Trash Tracker program. In his neighborhood, the trash that ends up in Lake Forest appears to come from household garbage that isn't secured inside a can with a tightly fitted lid, he said.
"If you leave your bag out, the raccoons will probably be in it," said Griffin, an environmental scientist with the Florida Center for Community Design + Research at the University of South Florida.
Lake Forest has a long history of doing regular lake cleanups, but Griffin said tracking the amounts of waste found will help the county detect patterns and, ultimately, help clean up Hillsborough's lakes.
But he said two keys to the program are that it's simple, and that it encourages people to open their eyes to problems in their own neighborhoods.
"When our volunteers see the trash," he said, "it instills in them the feeling that, 'Hey, that's something we don't want.' "
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403.