How to Save the World, One Beach at a Time

George and Suzy Pappas are too modest to take responsibility for saving an entire beach, but the numbers really say it all. When they first visited the island, these casual campers were appalled to find miles of garbage; so much that only one lonely sea turtle was able to dig through to lay her eggs. Since they started cleaning up with the help of volunteers, they've removed almost 100 cubic yards of debris that would have otherwise choked, poisoned or injured marine life, including turtles. This year there were 20 nests.

I normally focus on gardening, but I think you'll be inspired by this story about how two ordinary people did more than their part to beautify a national park's beach. When I met George and Suzy Pappas at this year's Sea Bean Symposium they lacked the self-righteousness that I have wrongly come to associate with die-hard environmentalists. That's because they're regular people, just like you and me.

They thought 'someone should do something about all of this trash', but instead of telling others to do so, they actually followed through by wading through shark and stingray filled waters and carrying garbage over their heads to a little boat while mosquitoes greedily dined on their unguarded flesh. When it became clear that they couldn't do it themselves, they got organized and asked for help, forming a nonprofit organization called the Coastal Cleanup Corp and enlisting the help of volunteers to see the project through. Where park rangers once counted a single sea turtle nest, this year there were twenty.

We bought one of their doormats for our garden!
And they didn't stop there. They have gone through great lengths to find uses for the materials they salvage, making rain barrels from 55 gallon drums and doormats from tangled rope. Not only do projects like these bring in money for their efforts, they also increase the likelihood that others will see potential in trash that would otherwise remain on the beach. People are a lot more likely to pick up things they can use.

1. How did you get the idea to clean up a beach?  
We were sea-beaning and beach-combing on the ocean-side of Elliott Key, which is a barrier island in Biscayne National Park. We couldn't believe how much marine debris was covering the beaches there. Later, we found out that because of the debris, endangered loggerhead sea turtles had stopped nesting there after many years. That was enough reason for us to decide we needed to do something about the trash. We knew that if we could just get enough people out there to pick up the trash, it could be done, and that maybe the sea turtles would return to nest there.

2. Are there more sea turtles now? How many? 
Before the project started, there had only been a single nest and 77 false crawls (when a turtle comes up on the beach to dig a nest, but turns around without nesting) in the last two nesting seasons. After we completed 28 cleanups, this past summer there were 20 nests and only 9 false crawls.

3. How did you get rid of all of that trash? 
We transported volunteers out to the island using the Biscayne National Park boats. We anchored offshore, waded into the beach, picked up the trash using re-purposed landscape mulch bags, floated the trash back onto the boats and transported it back to the mainland. Once on the mainland, we put the trash in a dumpster located within the park. Three 30 cubic yard dumpsters were filled with the marine debris from the project.

55 gallon barrel before
55 gallon barrel after it has been turned into a rain barrel to collect rainwater.

4. How did the trash problem get so bad? 
Marine debris in the oceans is a worldwide problem. Most of the debris consists of seemingly limitless plastic such as water bottles, cigarette lighters, and bottle caps. The dreaded mylar and latex balloons are ever-present and are a significant threat to sea turtles, as they often mistake them for floating jellyfish, their favorite food. We also collect large wooden pallets from freighters and merchant ships that can block nesting sea turtles. Much of the marine debris we collected was generated from countries throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America, as well as from other countries in Africa and Europe. Locally-derived marine debris included discarded commercial fishing gear from long-lining as well as from the stone crab and lobster fishing industry. The marine debris piles up on the beaches from twice-daily tides that bring it in from all over the world. Because the island is so remote, and because it is so close to the Gulf Stream and the Florida Current, it gets an inordinate amount of debris. Not many people visit the island, so it did not get cleaned regularly.

5. How do you find the time?  
We both are self-employed, but we take Friday and Sunday off. So, we plan our cleanups around Sundays and Fridays. A cleanup day lasts about 10-12 hours for us (about 7 hours for the volunteers) as we need to assemble gear, wash & refuel boats, dispose of marine debris, and clean the gear for the next cleanup.

6. How could readers help in their own communities? 
One of the first things that readers can do to help in their own communities is to STOP using plastic water bottles and buying helium balloons. It is such a simple and environmentally friendly thing to use a re-usable stainless steel water bottle and fill it with good old tap water instead. Many people think that helium balloons disappear when they are let go...not so. Contrary to some advertisements, helium balloons are not biodegradable, but can land in the ocean and become part of the marine debris problem, potentially injuring or killing sea turtles or other marine life. From a more active standpoint, the average citizen doesn't need to wait for others to form an organized cleanup on their local beach. They can just head out with a five-gallon bucket or canvas sack and start collecting marine debris from the beach or trash that has accumulated in their neighborhood or local park. Chances are that others who notice will follow their lead.

How to make a recycled rope doormat

These are ideal doormats for gardeners like me because they do a superb job of knocking dirt off from your shoes! Money well spent. If you would like to make a contribution or purchase one of their doormats, contact George and Suzy at


  1. Wonderful post Steve! These are two incredible people. I have always been an advocate of picking up your own and others trash. But now when I am in Oceanside, CA I will make a point of bringing a bucket with me when I go on the beach!

  2. Thanks for the informative post. If we all took the time to do just one small thing it would make a world of difference.

  3. Wow!
    They had made the difference for another generation of endangered turtles to survive.


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