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Trash and Debris Management

Minimum Measure: Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination

Subcategory: Trash and Illegal Dumping

Photo of trash collected from stormwater using continuous deflection separation


Floating trash and debris have become significant pollutants, especially in waterways and oceans where large amounts of trash and plastic debris can concentrate in a small areas. Floating trash detracts from the aesthetics of a landscape. It poses a threat to wildlife and human health (e.g., choking hazards to wildlife and bacteria to humans). Trash and debris also can clog the intake valves of boat engines, which can lead to expensive repairs.


When developing a trash control stategy, municipalities should consider the following points:

  • Implement a control structure that identifies the most common types of trash and targets its source.
  • Evaluate the costs for each control. Develop a budget that considers what services and facilities are already available and can be utilized at the lowest cost.
  • Regular cleaning and maintenance of control structures is necessary to prevent accumulating trash from becoming a pollution source.
  • Control strategies should not simply transport trash from one waterbody to another. They should reduce the quantity of trash in all waters.


A successful trash management program depends on citizen awareness and education. Citizens should be informed about the environmental consequences of littering. In this regard, pictures are especially effective at depicting the problem. To personalize the relationship between its young citizens and its garbage collectors, Kenosha, Wisconsin's public works department started a baseball card collection. Each card contains a full-color picture of a garbage collector, including their hobbies and interests, number of lifetime stops, and total pounds of garbage collected (Runoff Report, 1998).

There are two main methods of trash control, source control and structural control. Source control focuses on eliminating the trash source. There are four main techniques to prevent accidental loss of materials that could become persistent debris:

  1. Community education. Community education and awareness is essential to preventing trash from entering waterways. Informing the public about littering can instill a sense of citizen responsibility. For example, a community education program can inform residents of the consequences of littering and then provide them with options for recycling and waste disposal. Such messages can be conveyed to the public in flyers, door hangers, magnets, and bumper stickers. These materials can be distributed through the mail, at public places (e.g., libraries, town halls), in schools, and at local businesses. Maintaining the message to the community can help with long-term behavioral changes. A one-time message is not enough.
  2. Improved infrastructure. The location, number, and size of trash receptacles, recycling bins, and cigarette butt receptacles should be based on expected needs. Communities and private trash disposal companies they employ should work together to meet community trash management goals, including ensuring that trash trucks are properly covered.
  3. Waste reduction. The public should be encouraged to buy products free of excessive packaging materials. Likewise, manufacturers should be encouraged to reduce the amount of packaging they use. This information can be distributed in flyers, magnets, and the community's web page.
  4. Cleanup campaigns. Clean up campaigns are an effective way to reduce trash. They have been used sucessfully at beaches, along rivers, and in parks. By tracking what is collected, the sources of trash can be quantified and targeted to improve source reduction. Municipal projects such as regular street sweeping, receptacle servicing, and roadside cleanups are also important means to prevent trash from accumulating and entering waterways. Finally, specially designed boats are effective at removing floating trash and other debris from rivers, lakes, beachfronts, bays, and harbors.

Structural control is the second trash control measure. This method involves collecting and removing trash before it enters nearby waterways. There are two structural control techniques:

  1. Physical filtering structures, such as trash racks, mesh nets, bar screens, and trash booms, concentrate floating debris and trash and prevent it from traveling downstream.
  2. Centrifugal separation targets trash carried in stormwater during and after heavy precipitation events. The process physically separates solids and floatables from water in combined sewer outflows by increasing the settling time of trash and particles.

When developing and applying trash management programs, municipalities must consider short- and long-term issues. One of the most important is where to deposit trash (e.g., landfill, incinerator). What is the capacity and life expectancy of that area? Where will trash be deposited once capacity has been reached?


The benefits of trash removal are considerable. Better trash management increases the aesthetics of the landscape and reduces health and safety threats to both wildlife and humans. In addition, less litter from individuals can save the community money in structural-runoff control maintenance costs. Effective recycling programs can reduce the quantity of waste being dumped in landfills and encourage the reuse of raw materials.


Meaningful reductions in trash removal may not occur without an approach that includes both source and structural controls. To obtain a trash-free waterbody, it is important to apply several of the aforementioned techniques together.


It is important to clean and maintain the structural controls to keep them functioning fully. In addition, ongoing source control efforts should be continuously applied to achieve effective trash removal. Municipalities can measure their trash management program's effectiveness by weighing the amount of trash removed from structural runoff controls, collected during stream or roadside cleanup events, or collected from sidewalk trash bins.


Source control costs vary according to the type of method used. For example, a community education program, or a plan to increase the number of trash receptacles, can be inexpensive to finance. On the other hand, a structural control strategy can be costly. Physical filtering structures, including trash racks, bar screens, and silt traps, can range from $250,000 to $900,000. Centrifugal separation for municipal stormwater management systems can cost as much as $3 million.


Torrens Catchment Water Management Board. 2001. Trash Racks []. Accessed September 8, 2005.

Terrene Institute. 1998a. Runoff Report 6(3):6.

Terrene Institute. 1998b. A 90's approach to 50's stormwater design. Runoff Report 6(3):1Dash3.

Terrene Institute. 1996. Treating urban runoff successfully. Runoff Report 4(4):1Dash2, 4Dash6.

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Last updated on July 26, 2012