A lone egret watches as Mark Maksimowicz, 48, pulls on a pair of knee-high rubber boots and wades into a lake in his hometown of St. Petersburg, Fla. Standing in front of a pipe that carries unfiltered rainwater into the lake, he hammers two poles into the lakebed, then cuts netting to fit into a homemade rectangle of PVC pipe. The resulting trash-catching basket acts like a filter, retaining debris that would otherwise wash into the lake.
As a plastic bottle drifts into the net, Maksimowicz catches it and proudly holds it high. "Fancy isn't needed here," says the man who has vowed to clean up Florida's waterways, one piece of trash at a time.
In 1997, Maksimowicz was a successful museum operations director with almost no marketing budget. He came up with the idea of putting billboards on a barge in Tampa Bay to publicize museum programs aimed at sun-loving tourists on the beach. The campaign exposed him to the enormous amount of debris in formerly pristine waters where he had grown up swimming, fishing and boating. So he started going out to collect it. "Some areas smelled so bad I gagged," he says. "But I kept coming back for more."
Maksimowicz's part-time mission expanded when he and two cousins, Jeff and Vince Albanese, vowed to work together to clean the Tampa Bay coastline. With pooled savings, they purchased and customized a boat to work in shallow waters where debris gathers. They named the nonprofit enterprise the Green Armada.
"I'm no scientist and no biologist, but I know Styrofoam cups and plastic bags don't belong in the water," Maksimowicz says.
The Green Armada grew, and after more than 700 volunteers bagged 9 tons of garbage in two and half hours in Clam Bayou, Fla., in 2007, local media declared the endeavor the largest Southern coastal cleanup operation ever.
But the job took a physical toll on Maksimowicz, who developed skin cancer, respiratory problems and lost 30 pounds. Besides, he realized "we couldn't put a dent in the problem even if we went out every day. You have to catch the trash before it gets there."
Splitting off from the Green Armada, he went to work full-time with his wife Sheron, a lawyer and former Green Armada volunteer, for his new organization, New Earth Industries. Maksimowicz's dream is to eventually sell make-your-own trash-catching devices, which he calls Water Goats, around the country, but now he's content to strategically place them locally with help from corporate sponsors who want to protect the environment, and homeowners who want to clean up their neighborhoods.
Tracey Herman, who lives near Crescent Lake in St. Petersburg, is a perfect example of how one person can make a difference. "I would walk by this lake and always see garbage," she says. "It broke my heart one day to see a dirty sock wrapped around an Anhinga's beak. I knew the bird would starve and die, and I couldn't do a thing about it." Herman now takes responsibility for emptying her community's Water Goat litter.
"Mark's ingenuity, a combination of environmental vision and technological solutions that make sense, will drive the green movement forward," St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker says.
"Would you ever think of throwing trash into your bath water before you step into it?" Maksimowicz asks. "Well, that's what we're doing "6 million of us throwing trash into the bath water.
"Just take a few minutes a day to pick up a little trash," he adds. "You'll find it rewarding, relaxing, and you'll be giving a gift to your friends and neighbors downstream."