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From Tampa’s waters, this boat has already scooped up 13 tons of trash

A year into picking up a city’s empty potato chip bags and soda bottles — and the occasional dead chicken — Litter Skimmer skims on.
 
Tampa's Litter Skimmer, operated by the city's solid waste department, moves through the channel between downtown and Davis Islands.
Tampa's Litter Skimmer, operated by the city's solid waste department, moves through the channel between downtown and Davis Islands. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published June 12, 2023|Updated June 16, 2023

Felicia Russo and Kent Foss were out on their daily bike ride along the Tampa Riverwalk when they spotted it: That city boat they often saw tooling along the Hillsborough River sucking up trash, now idling at the dock with its two boatmen on land.

They hit the bike brakes. So many questions.

“Is that all that stuff that you got out of here? Was that floating?” Russo asked, indicating the piled-high trash in the boat’s catch. It was. “That is incredible,” she said.

Felicia Russo and Kent Foss, on bikes, chat with the men running Tampa's Litter Skimmer.
Felicia Russo and Kent Foss, on bikes, chat with the men running Tampa's Litter Skimmer. [ SUE CARLTON I Times ]

Since it debuted on local waterways a year ago this summer, Tampa’s Litter Skimmer has been watched from bridges and docks as it’s scooped up more than 26,500 pounds of floating garbage from along the river, the channels, Davis Islands and Bayshore Boulevard. People, including kids at the city’s waterfront parks, often wave to the odd-looking vessel.

“We’ll do like a little spin-around for them, show them the trash that’s on it, that this is what this boat does,” said Jason “Mojo” Morrison, one of two men currently working on the Litter Skimmer, which is part of the city solid waste department.

The Litter Skimmer on the Hillsborough River across from the University of Tampa.
The Litter Skimmer on the Hillsborough River across from the University of Tampa. [ SUE CARLTON I Times ]

The 43-foot boat, which cost $566,400, was custom designed for Tampa’s waterways. Its pointed nose opens like jaws to scoop up trash — plastic bags, floating plastic foam, Gasparilla beads. A conveyor up the boat’s middle sends the booty back to a deep holding area at the stern.

Plastics that make their way into the waters include food wrappers, beverage bottles, grocery bags, straws and takeout containers, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Marine life can mistake plastic for food and get caught in plastic debris. Millions of animals, including birds and fish, are killed by plastics yearly, according to National Geographic.

Typically picked up by Tampa’s skimmer: plenty of those plastic drink bottles and caps, plus yard waste, timber that can interfere with boat traffic and endless potato chip bags. (They float.) On a recent morning, the haul also included a dining room chair, a plastic laundry basket, a bucket and a full-length poolside chaise lounge. For reasons unknown, according to the skimmer’s captain Anthony Sardinas, they also pick up a fair amount of dead chickens.

The Litter Skimmer's haul of trash on a recent morning.
The Litter Skimmer's haul of trash on a recent morning. [ SUE CARLTON I Times ]
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The daily goal: catch the trash before it rushes out into the bay and beyond, particularly when wind and rain sweep litter into storm drains.

“We still can’t stop it all, but we’re trying to stop as much of it as we can,” Sardinas said.

For those elusive floaty bits of garbage that hide under docks and seawalls, the men use old-school long-handled skimmer nets. Big items fully submerged deep on the bottom — including the e-bikes, e-scooters and traffic cones that routinely get thrown in the river — are picked up in water cleanup events, sometimes by volunteer divers.

The skimmer is only big enough for two people, captain and co-pilot, who sit in small separate air-conditioned cabs on either side of the conveyor belt.

The work — 10-hour days, four days a week — has its perks.

They spot dolphins, some that like to ride alongside the boat, and lately their babies, too. They see manatees, two otters that live along the river, sometimes sharks. On a recent day at the Tampa Bypass Canal, jellyfish were everywhere.

“We were in awe,” said Sardinas. “I mean, hundreds of them. It was beautiful, really.”

Morrison said they once found a 12-foot buoy bumper that had come off a big ship. They donated it to the American Victory Ship and Museum, the World War II vessel docked near the Florida Aquarium.

“We haven’t come across a piece of trash that’s beat us yet,” said Sardinas.

At day’s end, their collection of discards is offloaded and taken by trailer to the city’s waste-to-energy facility. “We’ll take all this trash and burn it to make electricity,” said Morrison.

Boat traffic, including the Pirate Water Taxi, on the Hillsborough River.
Boat traffic, including the Pirate Water Taxi, on the Hillsborough River. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The skimmer shares water space with rowers and tiki bar boats, pirate taxis and pleasure pontoons that in recent years have become part of the busy downtown waterfront. Among the zippier boats, the skimmer moves placidly along at 3 to 4 knots, or less than 5 mph.

“It’s work, but it doesn’t feel like work,” Sardinas said.

“Being out on the water, you can’t beat it,” said Morrison. “And it’s for a good purpose.”