Our litter on land is strangling Miami’s waterways

Many people don’t realize that trash on the street flows into Biscayne Bay

In the latest installment of "Don't Trash Our Treasure" Louis Aguirre explores how much of the litter hurting our water is actually coming from the streets.

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – OLA Restaurant on South Beach offers waterfront dining, but when the tide is high no one wants to eat outside.

“It’s gotten really bad,” said Marilyn Endo, the restaurant’s manager. “We’ve had customers complain — sometimes the smell, we’ve had animals floating dead.”

What was once the idyllic Lake Pancoast that runs along Collins Avenue from 41st Street to 23rd Street has transformed into a virtual garbage dump at the southernmost tip. People who live and work nearby, like Ray Breslin of the Collins Park HOA, say it gets trashed “every single day.”

This scene repeats itself all over Miami-Dade County — waterways looking more like drifting landfills.

In case you haven’t noticed, we have a serious littering problem. It’s getting worse, and it’s strangling our precious backyard.

[RELATED: ‘We have to do better’: Litter is killing beloved Biscayne Bay]

“All that stuff gets into a small canal like this — that causes anoxia,” said Dr. Todd Crowl, director of Florida International University’s Institute of Environment. “And I get that people don’t understand that. It’s incumbent that we get them to understand that.”

Anoxia is what happens when there’s a lack of oxygen in the water. It’s what caused the fish kill last summer in Biscayne Bay. Since then, FIU’s Institute of Environment has been closely been monitoring low oxygen levels in the bay primarily caused by dangerous nutrients from land-based pollution.

All of us are responsible.

“Not a lot of people understand where this plastic comes from. They think it’s people throwing it in the water,” said Theo Quenee of the environmental group Send it 4 the Seas. “But the majority of plastics, over 80% of plastics found in our ocean, come from land-based sources like outfalls and streetways.”

That’s right, the majority of trash we see in our waterways is the direct result of poorly managed trash on land.

It doesn’t matter how far away you think you are from any body of water. Whether you’re in Miami Gardens, Miami Lakes, Doral, West Kendall or even Homestead — whatever trash you throw on the ground or out of your car window more than likely will get swept up in a storm drain that will empty out into one of our many canals that will then dump all that pollution right into Biscayne Bay.

“Three miles from here is connected to this bay in a matter of minutes when a canal is fully flowing and the gates are open,” Crowl said.

Sophie Ringel lives near OLA Restaurant. Encountering trash and litter every day in her beloved South Beach made her angry.

She channeled her frustration and created the nonprofit Clean Miami Beach, one of several volunteer organizations that are out in the community at least once a week cleaning up our beaches, waterways and causeways of all the litter from thoughtless people.

“Who are these people why does nobody care about this?” she asks. “What is wrong with us? What are we doing? I really don’t understand it, and it makes me so sad.”

A beer can here. A plastic bag there. A plastic bottle. A mask.

It may not seem like much, but from 2019 to 2020 alone, Ringel’s organization — along with Clean This Beach Up and Send it 4 the Sea — picked up 92,000 pounds of trash combined. So far this year they’ve picked up 20,000 pounds and counting.

All from people littering.

“We know it’s so damaging, it’s so harmful and yet we just ignore it,” Ringel said.

Clean-ups are just a bandaid. They are not the solution. The problem is us. How much and what we consume and how we throw it away. The change has to come from us.

“Change isn’t easy but it has to happen,” Ringel said. “We must do something about this.”

Almost 3 million people call Miami-Dade County home, with another 2 million in Broward. That’s 5 million people producing a lot of trash.

Litter laws are tough to enforce, and critics say the penalties aren’t severe enough. More education and engagement are needed, and our storm drains desperately need an upgrade to try to prevent all that trash from entering our waterways.

We’ll continue to explore that right here in this space. For more on how you can get involved and make a difference, visit the Don’t Trash Our Treasure page.

ALSO: Click here to send us your story ideas for Don’t Trash Our Treasure and your questions for Louis

About the Author:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.