Trash treasure hunt: Couple collects tons of plastic, trash from area beaches

Beach Relief nonprofit raises awareness about microplastic in our oceans

The ocean brought Tennile Maher and Wood Belcher together.

The couple met in the Bahamas -- their first date involved a beach cleanup.

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So it’s no surprise they started a nonprofit to raise awareness about ocean pollution.

We discovered these Getting Results Award winners lead by example.

Just about every day, you can find the dedicated couple combing the beach.

They’re not looking for shells, they’re searching for trash.

“We joke that there are mountain people and ocean people,” Belcher said. “We love the mountains but the ocean calls us.”

The couple lives within walking distance of the beach in Volusia County and just a short bike ride from Canaveral National Seashore.

“We just realized we had the time, we had the resources, and we had the availability of the beach nearby. Maher said. “So we needed to give back.”

Giving back turned into starting their own nonprofit called Beach Relief International.

Together they’ve organized beach cleanups, promoted eco-conscious living and collected nearly 8 tons of trash.

“This is culprit number one. Plastic water bottles. We find them all the time,” Wood Belcher said as he picked up a plastic water bottle just feet from the boardwalk ramp at Bethune Beach.

Belcher and Maher were out on one of their daily walks, bags in hand, collecting whatever they can find.

“We each have our specialty,” Belcher said laughing. “She’s microplastic in the high tide lines. I’m edge of dunes and rocks. We separate, we come back and we have different treasures. I have a lot of bigger stuff and her bag is full of microplastic and plastic.”

The couple weaves their way around sunbathers searching for anything that looks out of place.

“Pro tip,” Maher said as she noticed something out of the corner of her eye. “Look for anything that is a bright color. So anything that’s blue, green, bright yellow, obviously probably does not belong in the beach.”

In a short time, the pair has learned a lot about the problems in our oceans.

“We’ve had moments when we ask ourselves what is the point of doing this. Every day we go out and there’s more. No matter what.” Maher said. “But we realize, every bit that everyone does makes a difference. One piece of plastic that didn’t end up in the belly of a turtle, it’s worth it.”

To help get their message across they started collecting their most interesting finds. A workbench in their garage is covered in consumer waste from across the Caribbean. Some of it dropped from cruise ships others washed out to sea.

They’ve gathered everything from a weather dropsonde to a bottle of water that originated in Asia. They’ve found things that date back to the 1940s.

“We’re in the Beach Relief Museum,” Maher laughs. “There’s a lot of weird things.”

The couple research the items and then make videos they call eco-reels to help personalize the pieces and explain their impact on the environment.

“Each time we walk on the beach we lead by example,” Belcher said. “We’ve found here in New Smyrna people go out with bags and pick up as well. We’ve created beach advocates that do it all around the world.”

The two are convinced individuals can make a difference and they want to share that message.

“We’re so happy we’ve taken all this off the beach,” Belcher said, pointing to a bin full of trash. “Every day this is all coming off the beach. It’s every day. It’s what we do.”

“Everybody can make a difference just by doing little small things.” Maher said. “Over time these things do make an impact.”

About the Author:

Paul is a Florida native who graduated from the University of Central Florida. As a multimedia journalist, Paul enjoys profiling the people and places that make Central Florida unique.