Lourdes Ferris is Executive Director of Keep Palm Beach County Beautiful and coordinates an annual cleanup as part of Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). Wonder what ends up on our beaches and in our waterways? Check out the results of last year’s ICC.
I began my job as Executive Director of Keep Palm Beach County Beautiful, Inc. in July 2002 and hit the ground running as I was charged with coordinating my very first International Coastal Cleanup and I had two months to prepare! Fifteen years later, with 14 cleanups under my belt, and with the 15th cleanup I will organize in Palm Beach County coming up in September 2017, it is my favorite thing to do. With nearly 50 miles of shoreline, over 20 reefs and countless interior waterways, the state of the environment should be very important to Palm Beach County’s 1.3 million residents. For a majority of them, it truly is, but it is always a challenge to engage those residents, businesses, and visitors that can’t quite get the connection between their individual behavior and the health of the ocean on which we depend. Having a showcase event like the International Coastal Cleanup brings the added awareness needed to call attention to how ocean trash compromises the health of humans, wildlife and the people and communities that depend on a healthy ocean. Because of the unique nature of Florida’s drainage systems, that also means keeping land-based trash from entering those drainage areas that lead straight to the coastline.
The data collection aspect of this Cleanup is what I find most unique and it has inspired some of our local cleanup groups to continue the practice year-round. The actual examination of the littered items brings a unique perspective–what are the sources of the litter, can we come up with solutions, are there different strategies to tackle the problem? Because of the County’s geography and how it curves out into the Gulfstream, the currents bring us a lot of trash from other places with challenging solid waste infrastructure. This brings an awareness that marine litter is a global issue and it has to be eradicated globally and not just regionally. Education is a big part of this cleanup and every year our youth participation increases as we “grow” our future leaders with a strong environmental conscience.
The International Coastal Cleanup generates interest and excitement every year and I often have people contacting me to help, rather than the other way around. Over 60 organizations get involved every year bringing thousands of volunteers together to clean County beaches, waterways, neighborhoods and roads. To use an analogy from the sports world, I see my job as coordinator as Head Coach, Head Cheerleader, Water Person and Athletic Trainer–all rolled into one. I provide the motivation, tools and solve the logistical problems needed to have a successful cleanup. I am most proud of the fact that for 15 years, I have been able to do that–and even pull off a successful cleanup in 2004 when back-to-back hurricanes hit Palm Beach County. Weather is perhaps the number one challenge for this cleanup–since Florida is at the peak of hurricane season in September! The other of course is fundraising. We are very fortunate to have wonderful volunteers stepping up to manage sites and do the actual cleanup work, however it takes money to purchase supplies, and fund operating costs allow non-profits to do their good work. Nevertheless, we move forward every year recognizing that while solutions are built on individual actions of people, it will take a collective movement to make the biggest difference. And that is what an event like the International Coastal Cleanup can start–a collective movement to keep our oceans trash-free and therefore more resilient.