By Andrew Otazo
Collecting trash for 13 hours on a mangrove island in Miami’s summer heat is an excellent way to suffer dehydration and heat exhaustion — not to mention get marooned when someone steals your kayak.
Stumbling across a bank robber blasting EDM from his makeshift hideaway in the swamp was another interesting experience. Ditto when I found an unexploded naval artillery shell from World War II. It’s been a wild journey to 20,000 pounds.
My work to clean South Florida’s critically important and often neglected coastal ecosystems was born of frustration. Mangrove forests are keystone habitats for Miami’s birds and reef fish. As I weaved through a labyrinthine tangle of roots, I couldn’t place a foot anywhere without crushing trash that poisoned, choked and strangled an untold number of animals.
I got upset. Then I got motivated. Then I got to work.
Along the way, I dealt with full-body allergic reactions, skin infections and lacerations. Twisted ankles and pulled muscles were par for the course. I once stepped on a nail, causing me to let loose the most visceral stream of English and Spanish curse words ever heard in Bear Cut Preserve.
I’m often asked how I don’t despair when every high tide deposits more trash on coastal stretches that I’d cleared dozens of times. But I don’t mind the Sisyphean nature of my task. I know that there must be at least one more pelican, dolphin, fish or crab kept alive in South Florida than if I never started my work. That’s more than enough to keep me going.
Perhaps I’m an optimist. I laugh hardest when the going is toughest. Falling face-first in a canal while somehow keeping a 40-pound bag of trash over my head seems hilarious. Maybe that makes me a happy warrior. Or crazy. Regardless, I’m having a great time.
So, why pick up 10 tons of trash? Because the attention I’ve garnered through my videos and posts gives me access to hundreds of thousands of people. And I need them all because, though I make a difference in areas I clean locally, I could never address the root causes of South Florida’s marine trash problem alone.
I need you, the reader, to call, text, write and cajole your local, state and federal elected officials to pass regulations and legislation that stop ocean trash at its source. Make this an electoral issue, and make it perfectly clear to your representatives that if they don’t care about it, you’ll vote for someone who does.
The wonderful thing about South Florida’s nature is that it isn’t Republican red or Democrat blue. It’s green. People across the political spectrum care about preserving it for subsequent generations. My work has been championed by progressives, conservatives and everyone in between. We need the broadest possible coalition of concerned citizens that refuses to watch fragile habitats disappear.
Florida doesn’t allow local governments to institute plastic bans. This is one of the largest obstacles to addressing marine pollution, as most of the trash in the bay originates in the street, where it falls into gutters, and then the ocean, during daily thunderstorms. Gutter gratings and trash traps are decent stopgap measures. However, the real solution will come from pressuring corporations through incentives and penalties to replace plastic with biodegradable or inert alternatives like glass, paper and wood.
Preserving mangrove forests and tackling marine trash are my motivating goals, but they might not be yours. Perhaps you are driven by the fight for reproductive rights, affordable housing, good governance or racial justice. Regardless, my overriding objective is to reach civic-minded Miamians who may be unsure of how to turn their passion into change.
My message is, you don’t need to be an expert, scientist, influencer or politician to make a meaningful impact on seemingly intractable problems. After all, I’m just a guy with a GoPro and a tripod. Your most important tools are your hands, brain and phone — plus an unwavering commitment to your mission.
All you need to do is get started.
Andrew Otazo is a South Florida native committed to tackling the region’s worsening ocean trash problem. He removed 20,000 pounds of trash from mangroves, beaches and ocean floor over 117 days. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org