Chattanooga partners with UTC students to clean, document stream litter

Mark Pace/Chattanooga Times Free Press - University of Tennessee at Chattanooga students Natalie Benson, right, and Annie Quintero clean litter in a stream behind the former Logan's Roadhouse on Gunbarrell Road Friday, April 13. The class partnered with the city to help with stream monitoring and litter pickup.

A partnership between a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga class and the city of Chattanooga is leading to cleaner creeks, new data and a targeted campaign to teach others the impact of litter, all while pioneering a project that could help future cleanups.

Environmental Rhetoric and Composition II professor Clayton Jones approached city officials about monitoring for floatable waste in about a dozen streams around the city. He wanted his students to spend time outside while making an impact on the community and learn something they, hopefully, found interesting. The city provided supplies and built an app, which allowed the students to track where and how much litter was found and categorize each piece of trash.

"It turned out to be a really cool class. I was impressed," Rebecca Robinson, the city's water quality supervisor, said. "I was surprised; I hate to say that, but when it was in the original [planning], I was trying to figure out how it would come full circle. But the students were very energetic, and I think it turned out to be a really good class."

The class held its final field day April 13, picking up litter in a creek behind Logan's Roadhouse on Gunbarrel Road. Students also spent several hours during the semester at Carver Youth and Family Development Center on North Orchard Knob Avenue, Renaissance Park and other streams in Chattanooga.

During the trips, students found a scooter, a hair weave and a dead hawk.

"Categorize that one under 'other,'" Jones shouted across the creek to the students who found the animal.

On each trip, the group found a consistent trend: fast-food trash was by far the leading polluter, well outpacing plastic bags. The findings were even more dramatic in low-income communities.

"There's been twice as much fast-food trash as anything else, especially in low-income areas," Jones said. "We believe that's because of the limited access to grocery stores, and that's one thing we, as a class, are talking about: helping those residents in our city. Focusing on pollution has led us to another problem."

Students now are tasked with creating a public awareness campaign based on findings.

Jones left the project description fairly open, allowing students to use their creativity. Some are focusing on appealing to younger kids, such as one group's project to present findings in a Bill Nye the Science Guy parody. Others will take a more serious tone, presenting their ideas to advocate for change.

"It's interesteing to see how the streams compare and how what we find correlates with socioeconomic status," student Summer Tomes said. "We hope to advocate for better meal plans in low-income communities based on our findings."

Jones hopes to continue offering the class each semester, and the city is planning to continue using the app during future clean-up initiatives. Robinson's goal is to use the data to track long-term findings and discover trends, which could help the city implement preventative tools such as finding the best areas to place additional trash cans.

Contact staff writer Mark Pace at or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace, or on Facebook Chattanooga OutdoorsTFP.