MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – What started as a trash cleanup day in Bear Cut Reserve over three years ago has turned into a massive passion project for a Miami native — and he plans to continue cleaning Miami’s mangroves single-handedly until his body literally cannot anymore.
His name is Andrew Otazo, and so far, he has picked up exactly 13,640 pounds of trash from the mangroves and shores of Virginia Key, Key Biscayne, and Biscayne Bay. He knows this because he lugs around a heavy luggage weight when he’s cleaning the mangroves in the Miami heat.
Thirty-three-year-old Otazo, like so many Miami natives, says he grew up by the water and has always loved seeing the mangroves. As he got older, he would go out to these reserves to seek solitude. However, his peace would be interrupted when he would stumble upon alarmingly massive amounts of trash, litter, and debris.
“I’ve been exploring these habitats since I was 13 years old and I absolutely love them,” he says. “Before I made major headway through Bear Cut Reserve, it was covered in literal trash. So, I’d go out to these areas to try to seek solace and peace, and every time I’d come out I’d be so upset — I’d be angry.”
“Three and a half years ago I was like, you know what - I’m just going to have to do something about this. And I’ve just been at it ever since.”
I officially spent 100 days over the last three years removing 13,640 pounds trash from South Florida's protected mangrove forests and seagrass beds! pic.twitter.com/p4lCYMaLGv— Andrew Otazo (@AndrewOtazo) April 14, 2021
Over three years later, Otazo, who works in public policy and relations for an international agency, has now collaborated with groups to clean the mangroves ranging from Belen Jesuit School and the Frost Museum of Science to the Miami Marathon and the Surfrider Foundation.
Most recently, he has gone out to pick up the litter left behind by spring break boaters and visitors, which includes red solo cups, masks, and other realted paraphernalia. However, he says nothing compares to the debris he uncovers after a major South Florida storm.
“Because a lot of this trash accumulates on the ocean floor, and then these big storm surges just sweep it all onto the shore. That’s when it gets really bad,” says Otazo.
However, where does most of the trash come from? From the very streets of Miami. “The vast majority of this trash comes from the streets,” he explains. “What happens is that trash will accumulate along the sidewalk, and whenever it rains it’ll go straight to the gutter, and that goes directly out into the ocean. So, there’s no filtering, no processing, no nothing.”
Otazo believes partially to blame, besides the local government’s lack of involvement, is the lack of civic responsibility among South Florida residents to take action. “There’s a lack of civic accountability in Miami, where people take care of their city,” he says. “However, that’s changing.”
“There’s also a lack of coordinated policies to mitigate it,” he adds. “There isn’t a coordinated policy in this city at all, at any level, to address this problem. There’s just a whole bunch of groups trying to clean up the area.”
However, Otazo says there are direct ways the county and its residents can help the dire situation. “You can do educational campaigns, you can install these things called ‘trash traps’ that are giant nets, or, you can partner with local businesses, as we saw with the plastic straw campaign. It’s much more difficult to find a plastic straw these days.’”