Hillsborough litterbugs beware

You're being watched. And now there's a hotline.

click to enlarge TRASH IT: Every year, Keep Hillsborough County Beautiful collects several tons of trash from county roads, like this debris off the Howard Frankland Bridge. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
TRASH IT: Every year, Keep Hillsborough County Beautiful collects several tons of trash from county roads, like this debris off the Howard Frankland Bridge.

There are arguably more litterbugs in Tampa than bedbugs in a Nebraska Avenue motel. But last week, when I went looking for them, I couldn't find a single one.

On a cloudy Friday, I took a midday drive through Hillsborough County looking for people throwing trash out of their vehicles. I was armed with the number to a new litter hotline and, though I'm a little hesitant about becoming an informant, I wanted to try it out.

I thought finding an offending litterer would be easy. The week prior, I'd witnessed a VW Jetta driver flick a cigarette off the Howard Frankland Bridge, a gold minivan toss out a full bag of fast food and a piece of scrap wood fly out of a Dodge Ram truck bed — all in the same day. But this time, I couldn't find one litterbug. Not even a flicked cigarette.

If I had seen one, though, I could have phoned the Trash Troopers Hotline, a pilot program that allows concerned citizens to report those who share their trash with the rest of us.

The hotline is the newest project from Keep Hillsborough County Beautiful, the 16-year-old nonprofit that heads up the annual Great American Cleanup and Adopt-A-Road programs. KHCB is one of the county's most vocal, and active, environmental groups. In 2006, its volunteers picked up over 100 tons from Hillsborough County roads. That's a lot of Cheetos wrappers.

Last year, KHCB volunteers, who'd had enough of those Cheetos wrappers, wondered aloud why there couldn't be more enforcement of Florida's Litter Law.

"We wanted to take a proactive approach to litter," says Pat DePlasco, the Trash Troopers Hotline coordinator. "Honestly, the major responsibility of Keep Hillsborough County Beautiful is to inform the public about environmental issues. We'd rather teach them about litter and the negative effects of it so we won't have to do any more litter cleanups."

So the nonprofit petitioned the county, which provides the majority of the nonprofit's funding, for an extra $5,000. In late July, KHCB launched the Trash Troopers Hotline.

The program works like this: If you're driving down the road and witness someone tossing a cigarette butt or McDonald's double cheeseburger wrapper out their window, call the hotline (1-877-Y-LITTER) and leave a message describing the make, model and color of the vehicle, license plate number and the time, date and location of the offense.

(You can also file a report via e-mail.)

DePlasco listens to the message, takes down the license plate number and contacts the Tax Collector's Office to track down the offender's name and address. (Although the ability to access the Department of Motor Vehicles database is usually restricted to law enforcement, a contract with the county's solid waste department allows KHCB to access the information. "This is sort of a unique situation with what they're doing," explains Brenden Chiaramonte, administrative assistant to the tax collector.) In a few days, the litterbug will receive a letter informing him or her that littering is a misdemeanor offense with potential fines of up to $500. Along with the tersely worded letter, KHCB includes a pocket ashtray or car litterbag, depending on the offense, and an invitation to join the organization.

"It gives us the ability to do something about people that we see littering,"DePlasco says. "You might say they're tattling on their neighbors, but they're trying to make their neighborhood better in an anonymous way."

Of course, the letter has no teeth. The information is not given to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, and even if it were, litterers can only be cited if law enforcement witnesses the act. Any littering schmo can just ball up the letter and, yes, toss it out a moving vehicle's window. But KHCB is hoping the letters will embarrass people into changing their bad habits.

Litter hotlines are nothing new. Pennsylvania started one of the first in the late-'90s and Brevard County initiated a hotline in 2000. Both report a decrease in roadside debris.

Currently, the Trash Troopers Hotline serves only the Seffner, Mango and Thonotosassa area, which KHCB says has the worst littering problem in the county. But after the yearlong pilot ends, the nonprofit hopes to expand countywide. Already, DePlasco says, calls are coming in from all over the county.

"We're getting such a good response now," she says, estimating nearly 100 letters have gone out so far. "I think the program is having an effect. When people call, I hear it in their voices — they really like it. People are excited they can do this."

One of those is Cam Oberting, president of the Taylor Road Civic Association. At her home off County Road 579, which runs through Seffner and Mango, she takes a break from picking up trash from her yard.

"Why people seem to think it's cute and funny to flip anything out of their window is beyond me," she mutters.

And though reporting your fellow neighbors isn't the ideal solution to the county's trash problem, she admits, residents have run out of options. "For as long as I've worked on these issues, I've learned sometimes you have to be tough to get people to do what's right."

Editor's Note: The litterbug hotline phone number in the original story was incorrect. The correct phone number now appears.