Eco-friendly Ocean Allies leads 'Big Cleanup' of Clearwater

As the owner of Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber restaurant, a family-run institution on Clearwater Beach for more than 70 years, Sheri Heilman knows about building something that lasts for generations.
 
Heilman has put her professional experience and contacts to work in an effort to make sure future generations can experience the natural beauty and postcard scenery that makes Clearwater Beach a beloved hangout for locals, a coveted destination for tourists and the lifeblood of many local businesses.

In 2018, she founded Ocean Allies, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides guidance and a certification program for businesses that make eco-friendly changes such as eliminating single-use plastic products and ramping up recycling.
 
“We cannot spend this amount of time on the water and not appreciate that we all have to take care of this,” Heilman says. “I want my grandchildren and their grandchildren to be able to come to Clearwater Beach and say, ‘Wow, Nana used to say this was the number one beach and now we can see why’.”

From her own experience running the Beachcomber and neighboring Bobby’s Bistro, Heilman knows doing the right thing can also be a good business decision. Since transitioning from plastics to biodegradable products and recycling more, she’s cut costs for supplies and garbage service at her two restaurants.
  
Now, after a pause during the pandemic, Ocean Allies is in the midst of a spate of activity to carry its message to more businesses and the public.

The group has welcomed the first hotel, Winter the Dolphin’s Beach Club on Clearwater Beach, to its ranks of Ocean Friendly certified businesses. Ocean Allies is also taking a hands-on approach to the litter problem that still exists on Clearwater Beach and across the city. It is one of several community organizations working with the city of Clearwater to put on  a city-wide, weeklong cleanup event in October dubbed “The Big Cleanup.”
 
“We can do cleanups, and when we do them, we do them big,” Heilman says. “But we want to get to a point where we don’t have to do cleanups anymore.”

The Big Cleanup

Clearwater’s Sustainability Coordinator Sheridan Boyle, a member of Ocean Allies’ executive team since the beginning, says city officials noticed a trend in the last year of more litter on the beach. She says the cause could be an increase in day trips by locals during the pandemic. Clearwater has an active cleanup initiative in place. The Landscape and Beautification team collects an average of 40,000 yards of garbage and litter from the beach annually and volunteers have cleared 572 pounds of garbage from the beach. Citywide, 1,238 volunteers have dedicated more than 8,300 hours and picked up nearly 8,000 pounds of waste in just the first eight months of 2021.

But Clearwater has never organized a single citywide cleanup -- until now. The weeklong “Big Cleanup” began Monday (Oct. 11) with a series of smaller, private cleanups organized by businesses, community groups and homeowners associations. It culminates the morning of Oct. 16, when volunteers will fan out to several areas of the beach, downtown, parks, trails, neighborhoods and other locations to pick up trash.

“We are organizing this event not just to clean up areas of our city but to raise awareness,” Boyle says.

In addition to Ocean Allies, Keep Pinellas Beautiful, AMPLIFY Clearwater, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association  and Opals Sand Resort are helping to organize and fund the event. Boyle says the city and its partners would like to recruit 500 volunteers. A link with more information on the event and how to volunteer is at the bottom of this story.

Becoming ocean friendly

Leading by example, the Beachcomber was the first business in Clearwater to be certified as Ocean Friendly.
 
“We are not just talking about restaurants giving up plastic straws,” Heilman says. “It’s much more than that.”

In addition to going strawless or transitioning to paper straws, biodegradable to-go containers and garbage bags and recyclable products are all in the mix. In addition, restaurants source their food in a sustainable way.

And while Ocean Allies started with a restaurant, its Ocean Friendly certified businesses include a hair salon and spa, a yoga studio, a children’s play center, a tour boat business, Ruth Eckerd Hall and more.

The latest business and first hotel to earn certification, Winter the Dolphin’s Beach Club on south Clearwater Beach, included a series of eco-friendly changes and features in a renovation that wrapped up last year. Beyond eliminating single use plastics, the hotel has installed sea turtle safe lighting throughout the property and special window treatments that reduce energy use and glare.

Cartons of sustainably sourced water are provided to guests at check-in. Recycling receptacles and biodegradable coffee pads are in each room. Guests have the option to skip daily housekeeping services and reuse their towels and linens, cutting down on water and electricity use.

Juli Norberg, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing, says the changes are the responsible thing to do, but also good for business, positioning the hotel in the growing market for eco-friendly travel.

AMPLIFY Clearwater Executive Vice President Kristina Alspaw, a member of the Ocean Allies executive team, says in a tourism-driven economy, businesses see that Ocean Allies’ mission protects their product -- a beach that draws visitors from across the country and the world.

Speaking from personal experience, she says that she visited the area, fell in love with the weather and the beach, and decided to move here. Alspaw says as more consumers, particularly millennials, seek out eco-friendly businesses, the Ocean Friendly certification is also a valuable marketing tool.  

An ocean of plastic problems

Ocean Allies’ 2018 launch came at a time of increased awareness of how plastic straws and other single-use plastics pollute our waterways.
 
That year, the Clearwater City Council passed a voluntary resolution to promote the long-term goal of reducing plastic pollution and the use of single-use plastics. The city also launched a voluntary “strawless summer challenge” initiative in which businesses pledged to stop using plastic straws for at least the summer months. In early 2019, St. Petersburg passed a ban on plastic straws. Currently, state law prohibits local governments from passing bans on other single-use plastics.

“Ocean Allies definitely falls absolutely in line with that 2018 resolution and our waste reduction goals,” says Boyle, Clearwater’s sustainability coordinator. “There has been a lot of concern worldwide about single use plastics and the effect they have on coastal communities. We want to partner with businesses to educate them and help provide guidance on the impact of single-use plastics and what is biodegradable.”

When it launched the strawless summer initiative, Clearwater pointed to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stats that show the scope of the problem- approximately 100,000 marine mammals and one million seabirds  killed by plastics each year, while the country uses an average of 500 million plastic straws daily.
 
A November 2020 report from the nonprofit environmental organization Oceana shed more light on the harmful impact that the plastics pouring into our oceans have on marine life. The Oceana report says 15 million metric tons of plastic, or roughly two garbage trucks full every minute, flow into the oceans each year.

The United States generates more than every other country. Those plastics have entangled or choked nearly 1,800 animals from 40 species since 2009, according to the report. Of those, 88 percent were listed as endangered or threatened. In Florida, a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle was found dead, entangled in a plastic bag that had filled with sand. Scientists believe the turtle either drowned or suffocated because of the bag. A Florida manatee likely died because of the fishing line, straw, plastic bag, string and panthouse in its stomach and colon.
 
The Oceana report relied on verifiable evidence and confirmed incidents, with researchers saying the actual number of marine animals choked or entangled is likely far higher.
 
A tiny culprit is also part of the huge problem. Martina Plafcan, a graduate student in Marine Science at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg (USFSP), is studying how microplastics -- pieces of plastic less than five millimeters in size -- have increased over the decades in the Gulf of Mexico. Those microplastics come from water bottles, cups, fishing lines and other products, she says. They can block marine animals' digestive tracts and microbes on the plastics can make the animals ill.

While studies on the impact that humans have on the oceans and marine life continue, Heilman says it’s time to end the debate over transitioning away from single-use plastics and increasing recycling. She points out that pesticides and trash from inland areas sometimes a hundred miles or more from the coast can affect the ocean.

“This should not be a continuing conversation we have to have about what should be thrown away and what should be recycled,” she says. “This should be our lifestyle. We’re trying to send out a message that we've got to do something. We hope surrounding cities and other communities will take our lead.”

For more information, visit Ocean Allies and The Big Cleanup.
 

Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry is a freelance writer living in Clearwater. Chris spent more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys our local music scene, great weather, and Florida's wealth of outdoor festivals.
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