Back in 2008, when Robby Robinson moved to Houston and found a job on Craigslist, as a mechanic for the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, he figured he’d stick to fixing the nonprofit’s fleet of boats.
“Ask me what I do now,” the BBP’s current director of operations says in a thick, north Georgia drawl, “and I’ll tell you I’m a glorified trash man.”
It was in 2003 that the BBP first deployed a boat, called the Mighty Tidy, to gather up the flotilla of junk streaming down Buffalo Bayou toward Galveston Bay using a hydraulic conveyor-belt mechanism. That vessel—named in a contest by a local fourth-grader and painted a disarming powder-pink—turned out to be a dud, breaking down repeatedly and proving clumsy and inefficient at cleanup. “Those things just don’t work,” Robinson says as he gestures to pieces of the now-scrapped vessel scattered across the grass at BBP’s sprawling field office in the Second Ward.
Down by the water, he shows us its replacement: the Bio-Vac, a Frankensteined-together vacuum boat custom-made by the operations team from repurposed street-sweeping equipment. Although it was out of service for repairs during most of the past year, as of this month you’ll once again see it patrolling from Allen’s Landing down to the port, hoovering up 10 dumpsters’ worth of footballs, Styrofoam cups, and—most of all—plastic bottles each month. Two BBP staff members handle the controls, while a crew of volunteers doing court-ordered community service mans the hose as it slurps up refuse from the banks as well as bayou chokepoints where debris gathers naturally.
But Robinson’s department also maintains an armory of jury-rigged solutions to go where the Bio-Vac can’t. After tearing through the off-the-shelf options, Robinson devised a handheld tool from shrimp-boat netting, chain-link fence, and a paint-roller extension pole that works great for skimming trash. And to get those pesky plastic bags tangled in trees lining the bayou? BBP created a six-pronged hook on a pole—like “something out of medieval times,” says Robinson—designed to stab, twist, grab, and pull your discarded Kroger bags from faraway limbs.
Robinson says this is the most difficult part of the job, and he’s regularly caught flak about the bags’ “visual pollution” from BBP President Anne Olson—at least until recently. “She went out on the boat, and it took her like five minutes to get one bag out of a tree,” he says. “Now she knows.”
“The trash is just unending,” Robinson laments. “Buffalo Bayou, White Oak Bayou, just between the two of them drain about 227 square miles of urban streets. Just one bottle, one cup from every other street that gets in the storm drain, it rains, and here it comes.”
Which is why Robinson spent years working alongside grassroots activists fighting for a so-called Bottle Bill that would add a five-cent recycling bounty on the plastic bottles that make up most of what both his Bio-Vac sucks up and his nets scoop out. Currently, they grab what they can—“less than half,” he estimates—and even that ends up in a landfill; it would be too costly to sanitize and separate the waterlogged debris.
The Bottle Bill died in the 2015 Texas Legislature, but Robinson still holds out hope for a future in which he can stop wrangling trash and just tend to the honeybees he keeps outside the field office.
“Let’s just say I would love to be legislated out of a job,” he says. “It would absolutely make you sick to go out on this bayou sometimes and see what we’re doing.”