Dara Shoenwald is a native of South Florida. She is an environmentalist and a co-founder of Volunteer Cleanup – a community organization coordinating beach cleanups, raising environmental awareness, and promoting environmentally conscious behavior to protect the beaches and the ocean.
I am a South Florida native, and even though I’ve also lived in the Midwest, on the West Coast, and abroad, Miami will always be home. Over the last 15 years since returning to Miami I’ve experienced the transformation and growth of our city. I feel a deep sense of pride and even ownership, and love the idea of being able to play an active role in shaping the future of Miami in a variety of ways. I have participated in the evolution of our arts and cultural vibrancy, serving on the boards of several music organizations. Now that environmental issues have become my priority, Miami is naturally a critical focal point, because we have so much at stake to protect and preserve.
WHAT IS THE MOST PRESSING ISSUE TO SOLVE ON YOUR LIST? WHY?
I am heartbroken by the amount of plastic pollution in our oceans. On International Coastal Cleanup Day in Miami, our annual signature event, volunteers removed 17,500 pounds of marine debris from our local coastlines on a single day of service. And that’s just one example from our own backyard. There is a floating island of trash in the Pacific Ocean that’s twice the size of Texas and if we continue on our current path, new research says that by 2050 the oceans will contain more plastic than fish. Plastic pollution harms marine life through entanglement and ingestion, poses a threat to our food supply as those toxins move up the food chain, jeopardizes our water quality, and could impact Miami’s real estate and tourism based economy that are tied to the image of our pristine waters and views. History shows that when societies destroy the natural resources on which they depend, they are more prone to collapse.
HOW CAN WE SOLVE IT?
We initially created the VolunteerCleanup.org website as a central hub to connect hosts who are leading shoreline cleanups with our database of volunteers who are looking to participate in a cleanup event. Anyone can post an event to our site to reach our volunteers, and anyone can sign up to receive our weekly e-blast notifying them of upcoming local cleanup events. Now, I am not so naïve to think that we can solve this relentless problem just by getting a bunch of volunteers to pick up trash. That helps of course, but as a cultural anthropologist, I know that we need to fundamentally change some deeply ingrained consumption patterns, which can be a challenge. However, the first-hand experience of participating in a shoreline cleanup is a powerful catalyst for mindset and behavior change. During the events, it becomes very apparent that as a society, we simply use too much disposable plastic. So we think about the shoreline cleanups as a powerful way to raise awareness about our marine debris problem, and encourage people to reduce their reliance on single-use plastics to be part of solution. Bringing your own reusable bags to the store, carrying a refillable water bottle and skipping the straw at a restaurant or bar are just a few simply things we can all do. But individual responsibility is just one piece, and everyone including local governments, elected officials and the business community has a role to play. As a grassroots organization, we are building a movement to facilitate action on a deeper level. We are growing an army of changemakers who can advocate for reasonable policy change, infrastructure improvements and encourage or put pressure on businesses to move towards more sustainable practices and biodegradable materials. It’s all hands on deck!