By Dakota Parks for Downtown Crowd
Living along the white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast and the longleaf pine-covered bayous and rivers that feed into the Pensacola Bay system, it’s easy to submerge yourself in nature and forget the everyday stressors of human life. If you talk to a nature enthusiast or environmentalist, however, they will tell you that human life is causing major stress on the local waterways and ecosystem—particularly through trash and plastic pollution. According to The Ocean Conservancy, each year 8 million metric tons of plastics enter our ocean, and at this rate, by 2050 ocean plastic will outweigh all of the ocean’s fish. Two local groups, Keep Pensacola Beautiful and the Pensacola and Perdido Bays Estuary Program, are working to educate and change public perception of trash as well as garnering action from local communities to clean up the waterways.
A recent study published in Science Advances revealed that of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic that has been produced since the 1950s, only a mere 9 percent of it has been recycled, leaving it to accumulate in landfills or pollute waterways. Keep Pensacola Beautiful has been a leading figure in the local effort to reduce litter and pollution. Their annual fundraiser, Pieces Adrift, emerged to not only financially support the mission of Keep Pensacola Beautiful but also to educate the public on the dangers that pollution has on the local waterways and environment. The Pieces Adrift art show and silent auction will be held on September 18 at the Studer Community Institute from 6 pm to 9 pm.
“The art show does a great job at creating a visual representation of pollution and making people aware of how little changes can make a big impact,” Sigrid Solgard, Keep Pensacola Beautiful executive director, said. “If you’re using a bottle of water once a day for years, you’re only seeing them one at a time. But when you see the accumulation of thousands of bottle caps in one art piece, it changes your perception. It can also teach people how you can reuse something instead of throwing it straight in the trash.”
All of the artwork featured at the Pieces Adrift exhibit are upcycled and use at least 50 percent of the materials from trash, litter and secondhand sources. Artists can source their own materials or visit the trash shop at Keep Pensacola Beautiful, where they can find unique items collected from local cleanups and other everyday items from around the office. From murals and sculptures to self-portraits and even a repurposed TV fish tank, the art at Pieces Adrift is evocative and often relates directly to the theme of environmentalism.
“One piece from our first art show that sticks with me is this picture of sunflowers on a piece of plywood. The center of the flowers is made out of cigarette butts, and it says ‘in lieu of flowers’ on it with letters made out of aluminum cans. One thing that most people don’t know is that cigarette butts are the most littered item in the United States. We live in a watershed, so all of the trash on the side of the road works its way into the rivers and bayous, then out into the bay and ocean,” Megan Washington, Keep Pensacola Beautiful development coordinator, explained.
While Pieces Adrift works to educate the public and showcase the impact of litter on waterways, the Pensacola and Perdido Bays Estuary program recently launched its Trash Free Waters Project aimed at reducing and preventing waterborne trash in three major creeks within the Pensacola Bay system: Jones Creek, Carpenter Creek and Pond Creek. The project received funding from the Environmental Protection Agency and officially kicked off on July 31 at the Jones Creek cleanup. Emerson Cheney, the Trash Free Waters project volunteer coordinator, explained that the project will not only intercept trash before it enters the Gulf of Mexico but also work to identify and monitor sources of trash.
“The project has a three-part approach. First, is the initial cleanup to remove as much trash as possible to create a baseline,” Cheney said. “At the Jones Creek cleanup, we had 47 volunteers collect around 500 pounds of trash out of the creek. Next, we install a litter boom, which floats on the surface of the water and is suspended from each side of the creek to trap floating litter. It sits on the surface and doesn’t go all the way down to the bottom of the creek, so wildlife can move freely, and paddle boards and kayaks can actually go over the top of it. Last, we will use the EPA’s Escape Trash Assessment protocol, which helps us identify where the trash is coming from and work with local businesses or organizations on a solution.”
As Cheney explained, this is the first time a litter boom system has been utilized in Escambia County, and it will help them quantify the amount of trash actually entering the waterways. Waterborne trash is a growing problem, but until now, there hasn’t been recent data collected on the impact of trash in local waterways. The project calls for a litter boom at each creek system. Litter booms have been installed at both Jones Creek and Carpenter Creek and will be monitored for one year, utilizing volunteers and community members to remove, sort and evaluate the collected trash. The final litter boom will be installed in Pond Creek in October.
“One of the major impacts of waterborne trash is wildlife ingestion,” Cheney explained. “These plastics float on the top of the water and are eaten by fish and turtles. In turn, this plastic sits in their stomach and gives them a false sense of being full, so they starve to death. The toxins from plastic ingestion can also magnify as it moves up the food chain, as bigger fish eat a lot of smaller fish full of microplastics, eventually making its way to human consumption. This trash poses a huge threat to the entire ecosystem. I’m excited because we aren’t just cleaning up the trash, but we’re creating solutions for the future.”
Both Keep Pensacola Beautiful and the Pensacola and Perdido Bays Estuary Program are working to educate the public and create change to protect the local environment for future generations to come. As most plastic-based trash takes upwards of 400 years to decompose, it’s vital to keep this debris out of the water and the Gulf Coast ecosystem.
To get involved or learn more about the Trash Free Waters Project, visit ppbep.org. To purchase tickets to Pieces Adrift, visit keeppensacolabeautiful.org. Tickets cost $45 for adults and include a sampling of hors d’oeuvres, one complimentary beverage and entrance to the art show.
This local nonprofit hosts weekly one hour cleanups every Saturday morning. Each week, the cleanup sites at local beaches and waterways rotate to include the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Gulf Breeze, the South end of Bob Sikes Bridge on Pensacola Beach, Bay Bluffs Park, Graffiti Bridge, the William Bartram Memorial Park, Bruce Beach, Quietwater Beach and Bayou Texar. Ocean Hour supplies all of the cleanup equipment and asks that you bring your own reusable water bottle and practice social distancing. Visit oceanhourfl. com to stay updated on meeting locations and starting times.
OUR WATERS FILM RELEASE
350 Pensacola, a local nonprofit that advocates for education and action on climate change, is premiering a mini-series on the Gulf Coast waterways. The film showing consists of ten short films and will premiere on September 14 at 5:30 pm at the West Florida Public Library. Our Waters: Stories from Pensacola and Perdido Bays takes viewers along through the history of local waters and the ways they enhance our community. The mini-series was made possible through the Mini Grant program of the Pensacola and Perdido Bays Estuary Program.
850ECO COMMUNITY MEETINGS
This environmentally conscious community organization is dedicated to co-creating a greener Pensacola through education, political action, volunteering and outdoor recreation. Each month, 850eco hosts community meetings at revolving venues to bring together local environmental organizations, government groups and citizens to discuss and learn about various issues impacting the environment. The next meeting will be held on September 15 from 6:30–8 pm at Odd Colony Brewing. Follow @850eco on Facebook and Instagram for updates.
KEEP PENSACOLA BEAUTIFUL
Keep Pensacola Beautiful offers several large-scale beach cleanups throughout the year, including the upcoming International Coastal Cleanup on September 25 at Johnson’s Beach. They supply the litter-grabbers, buckets, trash bags, gloves and hand sanitizer. If you can’t make it to a public cleanup, you can always host your own private cleanup utilizing equipment supplied from Keep Pensacola Beautiful. Visit keeppensacolabeautiful.org for more information.
PENSACOLA AND PERDIDO BAYS ESTUARY PROGRAM
The Trash Free Waters Project will host creek cleanups to help facilitate the installment of their litter boom systems and seeking volunteers to facilitate and sort the trash collected. For more information on volunteer opportunities, email firstname.lastname@example.org.