From his sandy outpost in Miami-Dade’s bureaucracy, John Ripple can mark the arrival of winter by the accumulation of plastic cups.
Chief of beach cleanup for the county, Ripple watches litter habits change with the weather. Winter brings tourists drinking out of plastic cups from nearby snack stands and hotel bars. In summer, the plastic plague shifts to grocery bags, as locals arrive with store-bought provisions from home.
“Every season brings something different,” said Ripple, manager of beach operations and maintenance in the county’s parks department.
Once in charge of the county’s inmate work crews, the former jail guard now oversees 15 miles of Miami-Dade beaches. He took over in 2008, when county litter squads couldn’t keep up with the 8,000 pounds of refuse that, on average, appear daily on the county’s sandy oceanfront. Citizen videos of trash-covered sand sparked a political imbroglio in Miami Beach, but Ripple soon won over critics with his changes.
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“The cleanup has gotten really good,” said Cork Friedman, whose YouTube videos made him Miami Beach’s top critic of the county’s beach cleaning in the later part of the 2000s. “They just got really really good at making trash disappear.”
If the storm over beach trash has passed, the future of Ripple’s operation is more in doubt than ever. A complex deal between the county and city mayors may see Miami-Dade transfer beach-cleaning duty to Miami Beach, ending a decades-old tradition of the county maintaining the city’s beaches.
In exchange for taking beach cleanup off the county’s hands, Miami Beach would also take over a popular county bus route that runs through South Beach and beyond. Miami Beach is interested in running the money-losing bus route as a way to address residents’ complaints about service, said Mayor Philip Levine, and would absorb the city’s portion of the county’s $3.5 million beach-cleaning operation as part of the package.
“We find some of our buses are not clean. Some of our buses are not on time,” Levine said.
Levine and county officials say they aren’t close to working out a framework for the swap, which was an appendage in a larger deal that had Miami-Dade extend a special taxing district to help finance the city’s renovation of its convention center. So for now, Ripple’s domain remains dominated by Miami Beach’s seven miles of sand.
Ripple’s department of 50 does most of its cleaning between 5:30 a.m. and 11 a.m., when ground crews pick up litter by hand. But to target high-trash areas and times, Ripple also deploys sifting machines pulled by tractors. They separate refuse from sand. Before the big machines go to work, crews scour the beaches in search of large items like blankets and coolers, as well as bottles of any size, either in plain sight or in small bags left behind.
When he arrived in 2008, Ripple said the county had only one working sifter and it wasn’t used often. He bought two more the next year. At the time, about 62 percent of beach litter was picked up mechanically — either by a sifter or dumping a trash can into a truck. Now mechanical collection is at 92 percent.
When Miami-Dade first dispatched the sifting machines, Ripple said it was obvious the sand needed a deep cleaning.
“On South Beach, you could smell the nicotine and tar from the cigarette butts,” he said. “All of that stuff was in the sand. You don’t get it that strong anymore because we’re sifting it so often.”
Ripple also reworked the hours, moving more workers to the weekend and starting having his first shift at 5:30 a.m. instead of 6:30 a.m.
“They hated it,” Ripple said of the cleanup crew, though now he thinks the 2 p.m. quitting time is too popular to undo. He also slid some workers to evening shifts, allowing Miami-Dade to empty trash cans during peak beach season as late as 8 p.m. “Before, everyone left at 3 o’clock, and nobody was back until the next day,” Ripple said.
Even with the reworked hours, Ripple found his crews weren’t getting to trash cans fast enough. Too often, the 45-gallon mesh cans were filled to the top, and surrounded by trash on the ground. Ripple had a simple solution: bigger trash cans.
He ditched the previous cone-shaped design for a cylinder to increase volume and make them sturdier, with extra rebar inside to prevent the crumpling the county’s automated trash trucks were causing when mechanical arms grasped the old cans. Instead of shipping in trash cans from Alabama, a local welding company won the bid.
“He’s a guy who is really, really efficiency minded,” said Jack Kardys, the county’s parks director.
The 63-year-old first joined the county payroll in 1974 as guard in Miami-Dade’s jail system. He rose to the rank of sergeant, and in the late 1980s took over what used to be referred to as the chain gang— inmate crews that perform county work for a daily stipend.
Ripple said he sought out new business for his squad of about 70 inmates, shifting it from a money-losing operation to one that turned a small profit. “He’s a morale guy,” said Kevin Kirwin, who served as Ripple’s boss in the parks department until leaving Miami-Dade last year to be Miami’s parks director.
While at Corrections, Ripple participated in Florida’s “DROP” retirement program, which lets workers accumulate pension payments for their final five years of work.
In 2005, Ripple received a lump payout of $306,000 and a current monthly pension payment of $6,300, according to the state agency that administers the program. State and county rules don’t prohibit retired employees from rejoining the county payroll, and in 2008 Ripple applied for his current post in the parks department. In 2014, his county salary hit $67,000, according to an online database.
The married grandfather has an office inside a trailer at the county’s North Shore Open Space Park in Miami Beach, near the corner of 79th Street and Collins Avenue. From his desk, Ripple can hear the fan come on from the trailer’s lone bathroom. Boxes bar him from opening filing cabinets.
There’s a turtle skull by his desk. (Ripple has responsibility for the county’s turtle-nesting surveys). A golf-club shaft filed down to look like a spear leans on a wall. That’s an innovation Ripple said an employee created: using discarded clubs from county golf courses to make trash pickup sticks that he says are more durable than the factory version.
With tourism season building, Ripple said the litter demands will grow through Spring Break, usually the peak trash time before summer. But nothing compares to the trash county crews find every year on July 5.Ripple said it’s not unusual for people to actually move to the beach for a long Fourth of July weekend, sleeping under tents and living off their coolers.
“What they leave behind is just unbelievable,” he said. “It’s three days worth of work rolled into one.”