Our plastic paradise

I was in Seattle recently talking with an old friend about my move back to Miami. “That place is so plastic,” she said to me. Defend Miami mode instantly activated.

I effortlessly waxed on about our beautiful beaches and year-round swimmable, warm water. About the growing community of changemakers. And about our cultural revolution, where people are becoming more engaged, interested and excited about making Miami the place we know it can be.

Products containing plastic microbeads that wash into our rivers and lakes. (Courtesy of Marcus Eriksen)

But on some level, she was right. Miami is, quite literally, plastic. I thought about my own daily morning routine. When I wake up, I wash my face with a scrub full of plastic microbeads — gotta get that exfoliation on. Then I brush my teeth with a plastic toothbrush. Shower time, and I grab those plastic body wash, shampoo, and conditioner bottles. Alright, looking good, ready to get to work, but first I better stop for a cortadito — in a styrofoam cup, of course. And that’s just my first three waking hours.

Because Miami’s on the coast, that styrofoam cup all too often ends up in the oceans, traversing hundreds of miles for hundreds of years. That’s what Marcus Eriksen found when he sailed from Miami Beach to New York City to catalog the plastics floating in our beloved Atlantic.

Eriksen, a marine pollution expert with a PhD in science education from the University of Southern California, sought to collect new data on the plastics found in the North Atlantic. Measuring this wasn’t a matter of putting on gloves and picking up chunks of garbage floating in the ocean. No, this was a much more difficult task, as the plastic had deteriorated into small pieces and was dispersed into the ocean as what he describes as a “plastic smog.”

“Plastic in the oceans breaks down so fast. It becomes a fine particulate distributed globally. Cities like New York and Miami are pumping out this plastic smog into the world’s oceans,” Eriksen said.

The data he collected on the expedition supported this. Eriksen found that there were more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the oceans, weighing almost 250,000 tons — with 92% of it in the form of nearly invisible bits in the ice core, the seafloor, and on beaches.

“Miami has to kick the plastic habit because it’s not good for the environment and for our bodies,” Eriksen said.  

And Miami Beach is taking steps toward ending that dependence. “At the end of the day in a city like Miami Beach … everything that lands on our street all ends up in the water or in some sort of collector. It’s gross,” said Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Grieco. Sea level rise, paired with trash-clogged storm drains, led to frequent flooding of the city’s streets. And with a strong tourism economy, litter coating the coastal rocks and walkways was creating  a less-than-idyllic paradise getaway.  

Styrofoam and other trash picked out of Biscayne Bay. (Courtesy Dave Doebler)

Last year, Miami Beach became the first city in all of Florida to enact a ban on styrofoam on city property, including on beaches and sidewalk cafes. “Styrofoam is particularly nasty, because it’s impossible to clean up,” said Dave Doebler, the founder of VolunteerCleanup.org. “If you look closely at a piece of styrofoam, it’s actually made of little plastic balls held together with glue, and when that glue breaks down, those little balls separate and end up floating in the water for hundreds of years.”

A few weeks ago, Commissioner Grieco proposed expanding last year’s ordinance into a citywide ban on styrofoam, prohibiting the sale of the plastic anywhere in Miami Beach, with a few exceptions for businesses that could not afford the switch.

“Overall, it’s been a feel-good thing,” Commissioner Grieco said. “We even had some businesses like Walgreens, Smoothie King, and a local Cuban cafe voluntarily switch to non styrofoam to be good members of the community and good neighbors.”

But not everyone was happy at about the ban, Grieco admits.  “At some point, I started getting trolled by the chemical companies,” he said, the American Chemical Council (ACC) being one of them. In a legal opinion sent to Commissioner Grieco, the ACC asserted that “The City of Miami Beach does not currently have the authority to enact an ordinance regulating the use of polystyrene foodservice items.”

The law cited in ACC’s legal opinion, as it turned out, did not apply to styrofoam. It did, however, prohibit any city in the state of Florida from ever taking any action on plastic bags. “It’s currently illegal to pass any law or fee on single use plastic bags in Florida,” said Michael DeFilippi, one of the activists who worked to get the styrofoam ban approved. He is currently running for city commission with the goal of cleaning up the city.

Miami Beach’s styrofoam ban has inspired five other coastal cities  in the state to ban styrofoam, including Bal Harbour, Bay Harbor Islands, Key Biscayne, North Bay Village, and Surfside. While one city’s ban is “environmentally speaking, a drop in the bucket,” continued activism on the city-level is the right frame of thinking in addressing the larger issue of global climate change, according to Gabriole Van Bryce and Luiz Rodrigues, representatives of the Environmental Coalition of Miami and the Beaches (ECOMB), a local environmental nonprofit which implements programs to assist residents in living more sustainably and reducing their carbon footprint.

And as New York Governor wrote Michael Bloomberg wrote in a recent article published in Foreign Policy magazine, “Climate change calls on societies to act quickly, and cities tend to be more nimble than national governments, which are more likely to be captured or neutralized by special interest groups and which tend to view problems through an ideological, rather than a pragmatic, lens.”

In order to harness the power cities have in catalyzing real action surrounding climate change,  C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group was launched a decade ago, connecting 75 of the world’s major cities. Houston, home of the U.S. oil industry, is surprisingly one of the leading members of C40. The city has worked to cut greenhouse emissions by 32% in 2014, all from directives issued at the municipal level. But Miami’s still missing from that list.

Miami’s actions are in fact amplified on a larger global stage, as it is one of the regions most at risk for significant damages due to rising sea levels. Which is why Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez was one of 12 mayors from around the country invited by the White House to speak at the U.S. China Climate Change Summit in Los Angeles earlier this month.

People's Climate March FlyerFollowing the summit, and after the bombardment by more than 75 concerned residents at a recent Board of County Commissioners budget hearing, Mayor Gimenez consented to allocating just 0.007% of the $6.8 billion budget towards climate change resilience measures — including the addition of a sea level rise resilience officer. In an effort to keep the conversation going, activists have organized the People’s Climate March, set to take place on Oct. 14, which will start at Government Center and march through downtown.

Local measures have to continue in order change the culture of consumption and have a real global impact, according to ECOMB’s Van Bryce.

“Ultimately, it’s the city that is really leading the way in climate change in the country. What I find really exciting is that anytime a city takes an issue, it becomes a cultural disrupter and industry disrupter,” Van Bryce said. “It forces businesses to rethink the ‘business-as-usual’ model which is now, with climate change, completely unsustainable.”