KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. – Every week on Local 10 News’ Don’t Trash Our Treasure report, we show you ways your neighbors are taking action to protect our fragile Biscayne Bay.
This week we are introducing you to two activists who were sick of seeing floating trash, so they started picking it up and haven’t stopped since.
It was indeed a moment. After sweaty labor in the scorching South Florida sun, a mangled boat is finally removed from the mangroves, piece-by-piece, by a motley crew.
It’s part of a team effort in Key Biscayne led by Fill A Bag founder Manny Rionda and activist Andrew Otazo.
The paddling volunteers have been coming together for a couple of years, with their mission to help restore balance to our fragile backyard.
“We affectionately refer to ourselves as weirdos who pick up trash,” said Rionda.
Together the self-proclaimed “weirdos” are a force, undeterred about getting sweaty and dirty to clean up our coasts.
“You have to be really weird to come out here and spend your Saturday or Sunday afternoon just getting waist deep in the mangroves and muck and pulling out trash,” said Otazo. “And I there’s nothing I’d rather do.”
Community is a motivating force behind Rionda’s Fill A Bag. The organization provides reusable bags and buckets at stations across the state so that a day at the beach can also become an impromptu clean-up.
“We’re up to about 60 Fill A Bag stations, we had our first activation international activation in Mexico,” said Rionda.
The group is also responsible for organizing service opportunities like a recent one in Key Biscayne.
“Mangrove cleanups and events like this really build community,” Rionda said. “It’s people out there working for a common purpose, being outside in the environment in places that they enjoy and want to take care of.”
Personal environmental stewardship is key to protecting the so-called “kidneys” of the coast.
In April, the Nature Conservancy released a new estimate that mangroves are responsible for reducing storm surge flooding by a present value of $50 billion.
The storm shields also serve as thriving, but fragile habitats.
“They’re a very important rookery and hatchery for fish for birds for all sorts of different animals,” said Otazo. “And when that plastic breaks down that you find in the trash that gets into the food chain and basically just poisoning it from top to bottom.”
Otazo spends a lot of his time in this environment, braving unfavorable conditions to help preserve these critical habitats.
“Over the past six years, I’ve collected about 23,000 pounds of trash,” he said.
Otazo’s passion for our natural paradise inspired him to write a book, reimagining the beginnings of this fabled land, so misunderstood by many not familiar with its rich history. He calls it the “Miami Creation Myth.”
“I definitely tried to inject my love of all of South Florida’s different environments, whether it’s the Everglades or the mangroves, or anything along the coast into the quote, you’ll definitely find out there and it covers for all sorts of different massive problems that are facing local environments, everything from invasive species to nutrient runoff to coral bleaching to trash in the mangroves,” he said. “We don’t understand how badly these environments have degraded because we haven’t seen them in their prime. We need to really take action now for future generations.”
Taking action is an example that they’re happy to set.
“Being able to have tangible results, I mean, look what we picked up, right?” said Rionda. “We got this out of the mangroves. So as long as that keeps happening, and, and parents and children and multi-generations come out. I think that we’re going to have a great opportunity here to give people great exposures to the environment.”