What began as one Wild Floridian’s personal commitment has turned into a greater mission of raising awareness about Florida’s trash problem at home and beyond.
At sunrise on a Saturday morning, you’ll likely find Andrew Otazo, covered head to toe in protective gear, searching through the dense Florida mangroves to pick up every piece of trash he can find. As the sun sets 12 hours later, he’ll walk more than a mile carrying several 50-pound bags of trash to coordinated pick-up spots.
This is how Otazo spends much of his free time. When the Miami native isn’t working as a communications professional or advocating to fix Florida’s trash problem, he’s deep in the mangroves doing the grueling work himself.
So far, he’s collected 20,050 pounds of trash … and counting. Piece by piece, Andrew is cleaning up Florida’s wild places, and reminding us to never overlook the power of small acts.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Live Wildly: What was it like growing up in Miami?
Andrew Otazo: It was great. When I was younger, my love of nature really took root. I've always loved being outdoors for as long as I can remember, but I really started exploring South Florida's natural habitats in earnest when I was about 13. I would go into the mangroves, coastal hammocks and ecosystems. I think my work in these areas was born from that time.
LW: How did picking up trash become a personal mission of yours?
AO: I’ve noticed the litter problem in Florida forever, but it got really, really bad about 12 years ago. There were areas that looked like absolute landfills.
I used to think there was nothing anyone could do about it. It seems like an impossible task to go out there and try to pick it up. But I’m a very stubborn guy. So, five years ago I just decided I might as well try. No one else was really doing anything. The local governments and county here don’t have the resources to dedicate to send people into the mangroves—and they're very difficult terrain; it's like an obstacle course out there.
One day I just decided to start methodically picking up the trash, literally inch by inch, in the Bear Cub Preserve that's on the northern coastline of Key Biscayne, an area that is very near and dear to my heart. It's the first place that I entered that was a truly wild place. I remember exploring it as a child and being floored by the incredible diversity and all the life that can be found everywhere.
LW: That was five years ago now. What made you decide to go back and do it again?
AO: It's a beautiful environment. When you're going foot by foot, you really get to appreciate it more. There’s so much it has to show you that you wouldn't see from just walking through it or seeing it from afar. There was no aha moment that day—I just made a commitment that I was going to keep going out there. And I have.
Just a few of the pieces that made up over 510 pounds of trash Otazo retrieved from the mangroves one day last April. Photo credit: Andrew Otazo.
LW: Can you describe some of the things you’ve seen?
AO: There’s everything you could possibly imagine out there. Everything that humanity creates you’ll find in the mangroves. I've found trash dating back to the 1940s, and it's been accumulating nonstop. Everything from car batteries to hypodermic needles, to clothes and underwear. Or day-to-day plastic items—like bottles, trash bags, balloons. I’ve seen everything from a 200-pound dingy to a 250-pound block of latex, to oil spills dating back to World War II.
But everything else is beautiful. I often work in red mangrove forests—the trees that have the big, sweeping roots. They look like they're walking on water. And the landscape is never static; there’s always something going on. The tide comes in and out, the channels will open or close, and the mangroves will expand into an area that opened. Throughout the day, you'll have different animals—a whole different cast of characters—coming in or out, whether it's the birds, crustaceans or the fish. It’s constantly changing.
LW: Are there any moments from the past five years that stick out to you?
AO: I love taking groups of people out there and seeing their eyes get really wide. Many people tell me that they had no idea there was so much trash out there, or how beautiful the location is. A lot of kids in Miami don't have any access to the coastline—much less the mangroves—and just seeing their eyes widen when they see the landscape and the crabs and birds everywhere, that's really cool. I really do enjoy that.
LW: Other than physically removing the trash, what do you hope to accomplish through these efforts?
AO: I'm just trying to get more people involved in the political process because I'm interested in solving this at a systemic level. I've noticed that people are very receptive to this cause. It's like the one thing that's not political—everyone realizes that we obviously shouldn’t have trash in our waterways. I can make a local difference in certain areas, but that's never going to attack the cause of this problem. I need help from a lot of other people to do that.
Photos by Marco Antonio Bello, @mabellog on IG
LW: What does the Florida Wildlife Corridor mean to you?
AO: It's an incredible opportunity. We have these great swaths of different types of habitats that are protected—everything from the Everglades to Big Cypress—but it's kind of balkanized. Connecting all these together is restoring a bit of balance that we've destroyed through the incredible amount of development that this state has experienced.
LW: What do you want people to know about the Florida Wildlife Corridor?
AO: I want them to know that it exists and it's important. We have hundreds of different ecosystems across the state of Florida, but they—in a very literal sense—need to be connected. You can't have a deer, bobcat or Florida panther stuck on this tiny reservation. They're going to move one way or another. Whether they can do that in a safe manner or they have to cross multiple highways is up to the residents of Florida, which is why we need these corridors to be in place.
LW: How do you “Live Wildly” in your daily life?
AO: I'm always, always outside and that's where I want to be. I don't want to be indoors. I'm either swimming in the open ocean, kayaking, running or biking on the weekends. I'll go hiking in the Everglades and do gravel biking along the levee systems there. I want to be enjoying Florida's environment and I want it to stay as pristine as possible for future generations.
Otazo has established relationships with local governments and policymakers to elevate this issue in Florida. But this big problem requires a big solution—including collaboration between companies, consumers, governments and nonprofits—to address the issue from every angle. If you’re interested in getting more involved with this cause or joining Otazo’s next group clean-up, check out his Instagram or YouTube pages.
*Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of Andrew Otazo, @andrewotazo on IG
“Wild Floridians” is a monthly original series that highlights Floridians across the state who embody the Live Wildly spirit and support conservation in unique ways. Do you know a Wild Floridian? Submit them for consideration here!