CLEARWATER — Earlier this year, Sheri Heilman knew she wasn’t the only one fed up with the litter strewn on Clearwater Beach’s famous sugar sand and the bottles and wrappers stuck in storm drains.
In April, business owners and community leaders spent nearly all of a two-hour meeting that was supposed to be about general beach issues talking about the trash problem.
Over the next few months, Heilman and other stakeholders came up with a plan to send a message to all of Tampa Bay to get serious about the litter that strangles wildlife, fouls waterways and erodes general decency.
Throughout this week, about 1,500 volunteers and 50 businesses and organizations are estimated to have participated in The Big Cleanup, said to be the largest community-wide litter effort in city history. Organized by the Ocean Allies nonprofit founded by Heilman, Keep Pinellas Beautiful, Amplify Clearwater and other groups, the goal is for visibility of the six-day event to initiate a culture shift.
“We hope that this is going to be just the start of the conversation and that this conversation continues into a lifestyle change,” said Heilman, who also owns Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber restaurant on Clearwater Beach.
Since Monday, groups of volunteers have deployed all over the city, from Clearwater Beach to downtown, North Greenwood and Bayshore Boulevard.
On Wednesday, employees of cyber security firm KnowBe4 picked up 120 pounds of garbage around downtown, according to Clearwater volunteer specialist Samantha Moullet. Volunteers from Ruth Eckerd Hall collected 63 pounds of trash at Cooper’s Bayou Park.
The six-day event will culminate on Saturday with The Big Cleanup Day, where 850 volunteers are scheduled to pan out all across the city with garbage bags and pickers.
About 50 volunteers from BLDG 28 Church will deploy to Woodgate Park in Countryside to pick up trash that is left on the baseball fields and around picnic tables, said the church’s director of media and operations Jeff Singer.
“We love our city and we wanted to be a part of that renewal and beautification, not just spiritually, but also the physical side of our city,” Singer said. “We believe in being good stewards of what God has given us, we want to be a part of making the city beautiful.”
Heilman said The Big Cleanup reflects the education about avoidable waste that Ocean Allies has been trying to spread to businesses in Clearwater. Formed in 2018, Ocean Allies certifies businesses as ocean friendly if they meet certain criteria, like banning single-use plastics and foam, enforcing recycling, and other standards.
So far about 40 restaurants, vendors, salons, hotels and other businesses have been certified, according to the Ocean Allies website.
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The Big Cleanup stopped calling for volunteers this week because of the massive response, but Heilman said she hopes residents carry on the spirit of the event every day in their own lives.
“This is a worldwide problem,” Heilman said of pollution. “We want to make sure we’re inviting everyone that lives here, that visits here, that we keep this momentum going.”