Your View is a recurring series of opinion pieces from members of The New Tropic community. To share your ideas, goals, and work about Miami with the community in a Your View piece, please submit it to [email protected].
Local Miamian Andrew Otazo caused a stir when he posted a video to Facebook showing him collecting 2,015 pounds of trash in Bear Cut Preserve in just 23 days. Here, he talks about what he’s seen and what you can do to help address the problem.
I walk north along Crandon Park beach, with an industrial trash bag and what looks like a huge set of tweezers in tow. By 9:30 a.m., the temperature has climbed into the mid-80s. I will easily down half a liter of water per hour.
I head to Bear Cut Preserve, a sanctuary of red mangrove swamps, tidal pools, grassy highlands, and subtropical forest. Only a few eccentric locals (guilty) venture into this verdant refuge, which is just a short walk north along the coast from Crandon Park’s Nature Center.
It’s serene, but one must still endure hordes of mosquitoes, stinging gnats, quicksand (and its cousin, quickmud), coffee table-sized spider webs, and a lack of cell phone reception. The only things distracting from the natural beauty and challenge are the plastic bottles, insulation, tattered clothes, and car tires covering every square foot of the park.
As I walk along the beach, I open my bag and begin inserting the ocean’s twice daily deposit of detritus. I have cleaned this beach exactly 27 times. By now, my movements are quick and mechanical. I grab a Styrofoam buoy with the tweezers, toss it in the bag. I grab a plastic bottle, toss it in the bag.
No matter how many times I clear the area, I know the next high tide will simply leave more garbage. I stop for a second to examine a red soled shoe in the sand. I could swear I saw its partner yesterday. I shrug my shoulders, throw it in the bag, and plunge into the swamp.
It has taken me 91 hours to remove just over a ton of trash from Bear Cut (2,360 pounds, to be exact). But why should you care? This is a place rarely seen by Miamians. It is out of sight and almost universally out of mind.
Let us start with self-interest. If you enjoy locally sourced seafood, then you should care about the trash covering South Florida’s coastline. Tons of plastic wash ashore and are pushed inland by the wind and waves every day.
But plastic does not remain static. It is weathered by rain, heat, and salt. I have lifted five gallon buckets that disintegrated in my hands like tissue paper. Over time, coastal plastic breaks into smaller and smaller pieces before making its way back to the sea. Eventually, it becomes so tiny that animals at the bottom of the food pyramid—zooplankton, arthropods, bait fish—mistake it for food.
You know the rest of the story from biology class. The bigger fish eat the smaller prey. The larger the predator, the more plastic accumulates in its body. Since we enjoy eating some of the greatest oceanic hunters—tuna, tarpon, marlin—we might as well chew through a recycling bin instead.
The thousands of bottles, buckets, and cups (I once found a 50-gallon drum) pose another threat. Every summer the county insists we drain all outdoor freshwater sources because mosquitoes can breed in a reservoir the size of a thimble. But no one is marching into the mangroves to empty millions of containers collecting rainwater out there. The result is a breeding ground that spreads zika, dengue fever, chikungunya, and West Nile virus.
I have found two fully grown brown pelicans dead, mere feet from each other, their gullets full of plastic. I have seen a manatee dragging fishing line from hooks in its back. I have found fish baking in the hot sun, trapped and killed by discarded netting. And I know that all the animals I encounter in the mangroves, from ospreys to fiddler crabs, are negatively affected by the sea of garbage they traverse every day.
So what can you do? When at the beach, clear the garbage around you. Enlist your friends. Every piece of trash you remove could save a sea turtle, or ibis, or eagle ray. Be mindful of your own consumption of plastic bottles, straws, cutlery, plates, cups, and bags. After picking up tens of thousands of individual pieces of trash, I guarantee that at least one was dropped by a New Tropic reader.
Join the efforts of groups such as the Environmental Coalition of Miami and the Beaches (ECOMB), VolunteerCleanup.org, the Surfrider Foundation, or the South Florida National Parks Trust. Enroll in cleanups. I, in collaboration with the Frost Museum of Science, will personally lead a group of volunteers into Bear Cut Preserve on April 21. RSVP on Facebook and come on out.
However, cleaning our beaches and mangroves will always be a Sisyphean task until we attack the problem at its source. Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic are brimming with trash blown off local landfills, washed down storm drains, dumped from passing ships, and left behind by careless individuals. Insist that your local businesses ban plastic bags and Styrofoam. Lobby your politicians to change the laws in Tallahassee that ban local governments from implementing their own plastic bag bans. Demand the county impose greater fines and enforcement on oceanic dumpers, bar sensitive areas to motorized boaters, and install litter traps in storm drains. Engineering solutions such as Baltimore’s Mr. Trash Wheel could easily be installed in the Miami River and the county’s myriad canals.
Most importantly, experience the mangroves for yourself. Witnessing the heartbreaking dichotomy between the naturally sublime and artificially jarring will convert you into an activist for life. I will make sure to say hello when I see you in the swamp.