SUNNY ISLES BEACH, Fla. – Arina Zhirkova is sick and tired of people trashing her backyard of Sunny Isles Beach.
So in August 2020, the now 18-year-old senior at NSU University School took action.
“I started noticing that there’s a lot of trash here,” Zhirkova said. “I decided to come to Sunny Isles Beach and start cleaning up myself.
At first, she would invite a small group of friends to join her, but the moment she launched her Instagram account Sunny Isles Beach Cleanup, a veritable eco army began to grow.
“A lot of people started showing up and you can tell from like five people a group of my friends became 30 and 40 people,” Zhirkova said.
Zhirkova and her volunteers come out here once a week, sometimes even twice a week. They clean a 10-block stretch of beach from 160th Street all the way to 170th Street, and no matter how much they do, there’s always more trash to pick up the following week.
“We’re a coastal city, coastal state. We especially have more of a responsibility to protect the ocean and the whole planet,” said volunteer Luca Menendez.
Said Zhirkova: “Some people come to the beach and think that leaving their empty bottle doesn’t do anything, but it does, and it has a big effect.”
In April, her efforts got the attention of the Sunny Isles city commission.
Zhirkova appeared virtually at a commission meeting to encourage the city to do more to address the growing litter problem on their beach. The commissioners took notice.
“We really want to show citizen engagement and resident involvement in solving this issue,” Commissioner Dana Goldman said. “The beach is our greatest asset, so kudos to Arina for that. Thank you.”
Zhirkova is advocating for the city to adopt a teen green club so that more youngsters will become engaged in the mission and receive community service hours. But for regular volunteers like Luca Donayre, this isn’t about class credit — they’re fighting to protect their future.
“One day I want a future where this is no longer necessary, the beaches are clean and the environment is recovered,” Donayre said.
That too is Zhirkova’s vision. In just 15 months, she’s hosted 65 cleanups and collected over 2,500 pounds of trash.
“Everything you do matters and every piece you pick up matters as well,” she said.
Which is why she’s determined to grow this mission even more.
“I do believe that when you’re out here making a difference and people watch you doing a good thing, it influences them to do the same,” she said. “At the end of the day, this is our Earth. We have to do everything we can to protect it.”
If you’d like to join Zhirkova on her next cleanup, check out her Instagram page for more information.