BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. - Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start to summer and while thousands of people will be heading to Central Florida's coast, a small tribe of people will be working to protect Florida's water and wildlife.
The nonprofit Mission Clean Beaches studies, cleans and battles to protect Florida's marine ecosystems and recently received a big boost, from Florida Gov. Ron Desantis.
Marine biologist Nikia Rice has dedicated her life to researching and cleaning plastic from Brevard County's coast. She started Mission Clean Beaches seven years ago after a walk on the beach.
"The first thing that I saw out here was an entire plastic bottle of salad dressing and it just really got to me," Rice said.
Since then, she has hit the shores every week looking for plastic in the sand, especially in areas like the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, a critical nesting habitat for sea turtles.
"You do have to kind of get an eye for it, but once you actually get down here and start looking, that's when you start to realize how many plastics there really are," said Rice. "That's the bad thing about plastic. It never goes away, it just breaks down into smaller and smaller and smaller pieces."
Rice has performed necropsies on about 400 dead sea turtles found along Brevard County's beaches. She said nearly 80 percent had plastic trapped in their stomach. In one baby sea turtle alone, Rice found 166 tiny pieces of plastic.
"Roughly 40 percent of all plastics that are consumed every year by us are single use," said Chad Truxall, the executive director of the Marine Discovery Center in New Smyrna Beach. "That's a huge amount of plastics."
Both Rice and Truxall have been on the front lines raising awareness, advocating for plastic straw bans, and limits on single use food containers and plastic bags. In the past few years, several cities have enacted or are considering those bans, including New Smyrna Beach.
However, this spring, the Florida Legislature voted to prevent communities from banning straws, prompting Desantis to issue his first veto. Rice and Truxall were pleasantly surprised.
"It does set a tone statewide now on how we need to move forward with the single use plastic issue," said Truxall. "To me this is a start, if we have some type of policy with the straw, I think we're going to get a lot more movement with businesses wanting to do the right thing."
Both are hopeful people will be more mindful when it comes to plastic. Whether it's refusing straws at restaurants or choosing food items packaged in glass or cardboard versus plastic, they say every person can make a difference.
"One of the mottoes I try to go by is, if you're a part of the problem, which we all are just in our every day life, then you can be a part of the solution," said Rice.
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