'We call ourselves weirdos who pick up trash on the beach. It’s a badge of honor.'
Hurricane Ian has proved to be an environmental hazard as its high tropical winds and floods have caused a pile-up of trash in coastal areas. When Manny Rionda saw the accumulated trash on Key Biscayne Beach in Miami, he knew exactly what to do. He grabbed a fellow environmentalist Andrew Otazo and they went to the beach to try to tackle the mountain of trash that had collected on the shore, reports The Washington Post. Together they were able to remove about 310 pounds of lobster traps, marine ropes and other kinds of waste from the beach.
Hurricane Ian deposited tons of trash along our coast, which is why I’m so thankful to the 30 volunteers who helped us remove 530 pounds of trash from Bear Cut Preserve pic.twitter.com/Oh6jLybEKU— Andrew Otazo (@AndrewOtazo) October 3, 2022
Rionda is the founder of Fill-A-Bag, an organization that cleans up beaches and mangroves. He describes picking up trash and cleaning up public places as a life-changing habit he has developed. Rionda said, "We call ourselves weirdos who pick up trash on the beach. It’s a badge of honor." The aim of his organization, he said, is to encourage people to turn “an ordinary walk into a meaningful cleanup.” Otazo and Rionda monitored the storm bands on a radar app while they waited for winds to momentarily subside before going to the beach on Tuesday. Then, with the assistance of a stranger and his son, who excitedly joined the spontaneous cleanup, they dragged in hundreds of pounds of washed-up waste. The shore, according to Rionda, was littered with sharp wood spears, nails, and staples that protruded from the lobster traps. "It was all just one big mess," he said. According to Otazo, lobster traps can destroy reefs and marine life, and they can cause more damage near the shore. They are "wrecking balls" and "can do a tremendous amount of damage," he added.
One more action shots from our cleanup of 310 pounds of derelict lobster traps pic.twitter.com/4zoMsKqc8Y— Andrew Otazo (@AndrewOtazo) September 29, 2022
The men sorted through the trash with a shovel and sharpened scissors while wearing reusable gloves, piling it up neatly on the side of the beach. After that, they made contact with Key Biscayne Public Works to have the hazardous debris they had gathered removed. Otazo said, "I’m not doing this just because I want to make a difference; I also want to bring attention to this problem." Otazo was 13 when he first fell in love with mangrove trees. Five years ago, Otazo began cleaning up after discovering a large amount of trash buried among the exposed roots of red mangrove trees, which are unique to Florida.
He has already cleared the coastal ecosystem of South Florida of more than 22,000 pounds of garbage. He claims that he has only just begun. Rionda, like Otazo, is particularly committed to safeguarding mangroves, and his organization conducts frequent mangrove cleanups.
A few buddies and I removed 310 pounds of derelict lobster traps from the beach yesterday between hurricane bands pic.twitter.com/v9pPyD5oIZ— Andrew Otazo (@AndrewOtazo) September 28, 2022
Anne Birch, the Florida ocean and coast strategy director for the Nature Conservancy said, "Mangroves are a very magical species. They provide a lot of what we call ‘ecosystem services' for humans. They help stabilize coastlines, they reduce erosion, they harbor a diversity of species." According to a 2019 report by Nature Conservancy and several other organizations, Florida mangroves mitigated $1.5 billion in direct flood damage during Hurricane Irma in 2017 and shielded more than 500,000 people from the deadly storm. “If mangroves are reduced in size, then you are reducing the protection benefits that they provide,” Birch said.
However, mangrove forests are removed for development posing great risks to the coastal areas. Birch also emphasized the value of the work done by local activists like Otazo and Rionda. "When you start multiplying the power of one individual, you can make a real change," she said. Otazo says that the purpose of his work is also to raise awareness and get the attention of authorities. He said, "I’m committed to do this for the rest of my life, until I physically can’t do it anymore."