Turn the tide on plastic logo on a sail
Climate Outdoors

Don’t Mess with Texas…Waterways!

Texas has many tourist destinations throughout the state. Lakes, beaches, parks, caves, mountains, and more create opportunities for potential litter to collect. The state generated an estimated $80.2 billion in direct spending in 2018, which resulted in a $164 billion economic impact from tourism (Wells, 2019). Litter and debris on beaches, rivers, and marine resources can also reduce the aesthetic and recreational value of the area. The buildup of plastic debris in coastal cities can affect local residents as well as tourists (EPA, 2020). With the rapid development of tourism over the last several decades, the ecological and environmental impact of tourism litter has increased as well (Zhang et al., 2011).

Particularly in nature-based areas, such as mountains, lakes, seas, and forests, the environment is sensitive, and the ecology is frangible. Some areas have tried to explore effective tourism litter disposal and management strategies (Ezeah et al., 2015). Tourists’ behavior has brought many environmental problems in tourism areas (Kuniyal et al., 2003). Since tourism litter is mainly produced by the ephemeral visitors, the effective solution is to change tourists’ environmental behavior to reduce litter generation at the “upstream” level (preceding event), rather than litter disposal through recycling and reuse at the “downstream” level (subsequent event) (Rodríguez-Rodríguez, 2012).

Most of previous tourism litter studies focused on environmental impacts. The most direct effect of tourism litter is visual pollution, which affects the satisfaction of tourists (Ojedokun, 2011). Also, tourism litter can also lead to varied ecological damage and environmental pollution, such as pollution of soil and water, the spread of infectious diseases, emission of greenhouse gases, the death of wild animals and endangerment of human health (Campbell et al., 2016). However, few studies focused on tourist litter management behavior and responsible litter management projects. A large number of tourists are important stakeholders because they are the primary producers of tourism litter (Cingolani et al., 2016).

Racing sailboat underway at sea
Captain Tim Johnson practices for a regatta. His boat features hashtags to raise awareness of pollution, especially plastic waste at sea.

The sailing community in Texas is largely impacted by litter in Texas waterways. Small litter, such as plastic, is often found floating in the water which affects the marine life. Even big litter can be found in the water, such as large pieces of debris or shipping containers. Big litter can strike boats and cause ships to sink, putting life at risk. Fleet Captain, Tim Johnson, shares the impacts they’ve seen and experienced in Texas waterways and changes they’ve made on their team to help reduce the impact.

Litter reduction in Texas waterways has always been a priority on the Texas sailing circuit, especially for Fleet Captain, Tim Johnson. Johnson has been sailing on the Texas circuit since 2014, and casually sailing for years before that. His passion grew as he began to travel and see the impact that the sailing community can have. He became especially passionate after a trip to Antigua for the Antigua Sailing Week in 2017. At this event, Johnson learned about the community events and initiatives that took place at their yacht club to clean up their beaches and reduce litter. What impacted Johnson the most was learning how plastic will kill a plankton and continue to float at the top of the surface while the plankton sinks down to the bottom. “The plastic acts like a never-ending bullet killing one organism after the next,” said Johnson.

This inspired Johnson to make changes back in Texas. After his return he became a chairman for the J24 board and began to use his new position to implement changes on the Texas circuit. J24 is a sailing class named for the single-hull J24-class J-boat, the world’s most popular keeled racing sailboat.

The biggest change made was switching from plastic water bottles to reusable water bottles during regattas. Each boat is required to carry 2 gallons of potable water per day during a regatta, so captains would buy a bulk case of plastic water bottles at a low price for the crew. Initially there was some pushback and to combat that, Johnson implemented nice reusable water bottles as trophies for winners. They still found that others who didn’t win didn’t have reusable water bottles, so they added lower cost reusable water bottles to the registration packets that a boat receives for the weekend.

Another change Johnson implemented was switching out the saran wrap plastic used to wrap the boat for travel with reusable Velcro strips. Often times the saran wrap would come undone and fly off the boat while traveling down the highway, all unknown to the driver. This was adding to the litter problem. Initially the price for multiple reusable strips was high and other sailors were turned off by the idea, but Johnson met with sail manufacturers who began to distribute the Velcro is one 24-foot-long roll. Now sailors can roll out the desired amount and cut it for what they need at a lower cost. Johnson continues to be a role model, example, and advocate for reducing litter in Texas waterways. He is always open to new opportunities and suggestions for how he can make the sailing community better. The changes Johnson has made so far have had a great impact on the community and subsequently the environment. Through his continued efforts, the Texas sailing community and Texas sailing circuit will continue to reduce litter in Texas Waterways.

Habitats can be altered by trash and debris in rivers, oceans, beaches, and submerged benthic (EPA, 2020). Benthic refers to anything associated with or occurring on the bottom of a body of water such as a river, lake, or ocean. The animals and plants that live on or in the bottom are known as the benthos (EPA, 2020). As the amount of litter increases, the habitats in the water can begin to lose oxygen from the light’s inability to reach underlying water. As benthic habitat-forming species decline and as the physical structure of the habitats are modified, there may be indirect impacts of marine debris such as declines in species that are dependent on these habitats for foraging and shelter (EPA, 2020). In 2018, Texas coasts were estimated to have ten times more plastic debris than the beaches of the easter Gulf of Mexico (Dawson, 2018).

The main chemical issue with litter and debris in the water is the accumulation and transport of persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (PBTs) contaminants. PBT substances are chemical compounds that are resistant to degradation, are highly mobile in the environment, and exhibit a high degree of toxicity (EPA, 2020). Marine life at higher levels of the food chain show an increase in PBT levels because they are constantly eating the substance embedded in the tissue of their prey. In studies conducted by the United States Environment Protection Agency (EPA), plastics have been found to absorb chemicals from the environment and serve as a global transport mechanism. These contaminants could be potentially harmful to the food chain and harm humans who eat seafood as well. For example, the formaldehyde released from a cigarette can make their ways into freshwater sources and impact both humans and animals. 60% of Texas water pollution is attributed to litter (Littering, 2020).

Ingestion can also affect other marine creatures such as sea turtles, seals, and marine mammals. Often marine life ingest plastic when they have mistaken plastic pieces for food. Sea turtles consume plastic bags and other floating debris directly by mistaking it for jellyfish. Seals indirectly consume plastic through the consumption of ocean fish or other prey that had previously consumed plastic (EPA, 2020). Researchers estimate there were over one million animals die each year after ingesting or becoming entrapped in improperly discarded trash (Littering, 2020).

The effects of aquatic plastics are harmful to marine and river organisms. It’s estimated that plastic marine debris adversely affects at least 267 species globally, including 86% of sea turtles, 44% of seabirds, and 43% of marine mammals. The most common threats to wildlife include both physical hazards from ingestion and entanglement, and toxicological threats from the ingestion of contaminants attached to and trapped within plastic particles (Impact, 2020). In 2015, the Conservancy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conducted a study which showed Texas currently led the nation in marine debris along its 367-mile long coastline (Dawson, 2018).

Litter in water can also lead to ingestion of these waste items. When marine life ingests litter, it can cause internal and external wounds, impairment of feeding capacity due to the buildup or blockage of the digestive system, decrease in mobility and predatory avoidance, and toxicity (EPA, 2020). Marine litter can also affect seabirds that rely on the ocean fish for food. They can act as early indicators of pollutants, such as plastic, in marine environments because of their feeding habits. From ingestion of plastics, seabirds have shown reduction in body weight, restrictions of fat deposition, and reduction in reproductive capacity.

Captain Johnson and his team, Gray Wolf, have provided a great example in the Texas sailing community with ways to make changes and reduce the impact of litter on Texas waterways.


Campbell, M. L., Slavin, C., Grage, A., & Kinslow, A. (2016). Human health impacts from litter on beaches and associated perceptions: a case study of ‘clean’ Tasmanian beaches. Ocean Coastal Management, 126, 22-30. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2016.04.002

Cingolani, A. M., Barberá, I., Renison, D., Barri, F. R. (2016). Can persuasive and demonstrative messages to visitors reduce littering in river beaches? Waste Management, 58, 34-40. https://doi.org/10.1012/j.wasman.2016.08.028

Dawson, B. (2018, March 16.). Texas’ shoreline is swamped by plastic trash – the most of any state. Texas Climate News. Retrieved from https://texasclimatenews.org/features/texas-shoreline-is-swamped-by-plastic-trash-the-most-of-any-state/

EPA (2020, July 30). Impacts of Mismanaged Trash. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/trash-free-waters/impacts-mismanaged-trash

Ezeah, C., Fazakerley, J., & Byrne, T. (2015). Tourism waste management in the EuropeanUnion: Lessons learned from four popular EU tourist destinations. American Journal of Climate Change, 4(5), 431-445. https://doi.org/10.4236/ajcc.2015.45035

Kuniyal, J. C., Jain, A. P. & Shannigrahi, A. S. (2003). Solid waste management in Indian Himalayan tourists’ treks: a case study in and around the Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib. Waste Management, 23(9), 807-816. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0956-053X(03)00027-8

Littering Facts: How Littering Really Affects the Environment: TDS. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.texasdisposal.com/blog/the-real-cost-of-littering/

Ojedokun, O. (2011). Attitude towards littering as a mediator of the relationship between personality attributes and responsible environmental behavior. Waste Management, 31(12), 2601-2611. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2011.08.014

Rodríguez-Rodríguez, D. (2012). Littering in protected areas: a conservation and management challenge–a case study from the Autonomous Region of Madrid, Spain. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 20(7), 1011-1024. https://doi.org/10.1080/09669582.2011.651221

Wells, A. (2019. May 2). Tourism’s economic impact in Texas: $164 billion. Austin Business Journal. Retrieved from https://www.bizjournals.com/austin/news/2019/05/02/tourisms-economic-impact-in-texas-164-billion.html

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