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Local waterway cleanup organization set to reach 1 million pounds of collected trash

Four people stand in a creek with bags and tools for cleaning up.
Hogtown Creek is an urban waterway in Gainesville where thousands of pounds of garbage end up every year. Current Problems works to pull the items back out, one by one. (Hannah Shelton/WUFT News)

A crushed Pepsi can, damp cigarette butts, a rusted tire wheel buried deep in soggy mulch. 

They’re part of the debris collected after a day’s work by Current Problems, an Alachua County-based waterway cleanup organization.

By the end of the year, the junk-filled bags Current Problems hauls away at cleanups will reach a milestone: 1 million pounds of total trash collected. 

According to Executive Director Nicole Llinas, the achievement could come as early as November. As of Oct. 7, the organization had recorded 986,333 pounds of collected trash, with over 32,000 of that picked up since January and less than 14,000 pounds left to reach the 1 million mark.

While Llinas noted the milestone, she keeps a different goal in mind.

“People will ask me, ‘How many pounds do you want to hit?’ and I always say zero,” she said. “I hope we hit nothing.”

In the almost 30 years since its founding in 1993, the nonprofit has led hundreds of water conservation and restoration efforts across north central Florida. 

It organizes about three cleanups a week, providing volunteers who traverse swamps, creeks, lakes, rivers, streams and other bodies of water with all the tools and equipment they need to collect debris. About 53% of the garbage collected is recycled or repurposed by local artists. 

The organization renewed its focus on stormwater pollution in the wake of Hurricane Ian.  

With Alachua County largely spared by the storm, Llinas said she pivoted resources to support Flagler, St. Johns and Volusia counties with cleanup and disposal. In addition to working at scheduled events at Newnans Lake and the Suwannee River, she said she plans to spend the next three months leveraging equipment and supplies to eastern areas and coastlines.

Even less intense storms produce lasting environmental consequences. Flooding and raised water levels deposit trash onto floodplains where it remains after the water recedes. 

Llinas said Current Problems is still picking up garbage in Gainesville’s Hogtown Creek left by Hurricane Elsa, the first named storm of the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season. 

Heavy rains pose an especially concerning threat in Alachua County, where storm drains are unfiltered. This allows polluted runoff to be flushed directly into the drains and channel into natural waterways. 

According to Stacie Greco, Alachua County’s water conservation coordinator, implementing a filter isn’t a simple or feasible solution. 

The thick local tree cover would make having filters difficult because she said they would quickly get filled with leaves and require staff to clean them after every storm.

By specializing in large-debris cleanups in freshwaters across the entire Suwannee and St. Johns river basins, Current Problems targets trash that otherwise contaminates drinking water and the Atlantic Ocean. 

The entire state rests on the Floridan aquifer, which supplies 10 million people with drinking water and channels directly from groundwater and water bodies like springs and creeks. 

Having “all our drinking water directly below our feet (is) a major concern for protecting the environment,” said Alachua County Hazardous Materials Program Manager Christopher Gilbert. 

Land-based pollution also infiltrates marine ecosystems. Toxic chemicals, metals, plastics and sewage enter through rivers and runoff, generating over 80% of global ocean debris, according to a 2020 study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information.  

Gilbert said he believes a lot of people just don’t see that connectivity.

“They think ‘No harm in just tossing this one Styrofoam cup out,’ and people don’t realize it’s a long chain,” he said.

Current Problems recognizes the need for what Llinas calls “watershed awareness.” 

The organization’s founders focused on teaching North Floridians that they are upstream neighbors to entire communities across Florida and to convey a responsibility to those communities, she said. 

The public’s attitudes about coastal issues like the algae blooms in Eastern Florida don’t take into account how “that starts in our streams, that starts in our waterways and our backyards,” she added. 

These issues are bigger than just individual actions, Llinas said. 

Llinas leads the organization with what she calls a sustainability mindset that uses programming and education to address the systemic conditions, not just their environmental outcomes, that feed pollution into the water in the first place. 

In a single cleanup, finding dozens of plastic bottles and Styrofoam cups comes as no surprise, but neither does a half-submerged shopping cart. The objects that are dragged from the water range in size, shape and material and are all carefully cataloged by Llinas. 

Current Problems uses this data to partner with public and private organizations across the 19 counties it services to bolster the availability of local resources. Its efforts to offer responsible disposal options range from proposing new recycling bin placements to initiating tire reclamation events.

Public education initiatives, Alachua County officials emphasize, are crucial for reducing water pollution. 

“You get ahead of the curve by educating,” Gilbert said. 

Though Alachua County enforces water quality codes, a lot of the time, people just don’t know, Greco said. She works with Alachua County Environmental Protection Department in the “Only Rain Down the Drain” campaign to promote best management practices for storm drain discharge. 

 Greco said she believes Current Problems’ cleanups are a great way to get people involved to see that impact. And volunteers agree. 

Evan Asuncion, a second-year University of Florida student, called his March experience trekking the water-saturated ground of Hogtown Creek with Llinas rewarding.

Asuncion, who is originally from Jacksonville, said he was previously unaware of the extent and impact of pollution in Gainesville’s natural areas. 

After unearthing tarps from the dirt and plucking bottles from the stream, his perspective has shifted. 

Now, he’s more cognizant of the role he can play in directly effecting change. 

“More people should be aware of this type of community, this type of doing, this type of volunteer work — and then contribute to it.”

Luena is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.