Miami Beach

Miami Beach kayaker is on mission to clean up city’s waterways and help alleviate backed-up drains

David Doebler’s kayak is crammed with junk.

An orange traffic cone, a Styrofoam cooler, 23 plastic bottles, 43 aluminum cans and countless bits of other random trash weigh down his yellow vessel — almost to the point that it could take on water.

No piece of trash is too small, too gross or too out of reach for Doebler, a Belle Isle resident who spends every Sunday afternoon fishing waste from the canals, lakes and waterways of South Beach.

The trash is ugly to look at. It can kill marine life. And it can also contribute to flooding.

Every weekend, Doebler says, he finds a storm drain so packed with trash that water can’t push through. It doesn’t help that the Beach only cleans out some portions of the drainage system once every 21/2 years.

Doebler, 42, hopes to clean up his city’s waterways by linking the pollution problem with flooding — a pervasive problem in Miami Beach that a new commission and administration have aggressively tackled — including the recent approval of a $400 million plan to keep water out of the streets. The plan calls for installing up to 40 pump stations, among other actions.

Doebler’s efforts have raised awareness of the city’s polluted waterways, and gotten the attention of city leaders.

After Doebler marched into City Hall with a box full of soppy garbage he pulled from the drainage pipes, city staff recommended trying out new covers that may work better at keeping trash out of the city’s drainage system. And the city is working out a more frequent cleaning schedule for the system, said Eric Carpenter, the city’s director of public works.

Commissioner Michael Grieco recently presented Doebler with a key to the city to thank him for bringing the issue to the city’s attention.

“This is garbage that pollutes our waters, that clogs our drainage system for flooding,” Grieco said. “This is something that I have taken to heart, that we as a commission have decided that we’re going to make it a huge priority.”

Grieco added: “Mother Nature gave us a 10 when it comes to Miami Beach, and we’ve turned it into a six. And we have the responsibility to bring it back up.”

When Doebler first started kayaking the waters of Miami Beach, he considered it an annoyance to find cigarette butts, plastic bags and food containers floating alongside manatees, rays and sea birds. Now, the sales director for a computer security company calls polluted waterways his “obsession.”

In a year or so on the water, Doebler figures he’s hauled more than a ton of garbage — about 50 pounds every weekend.

The strangest thing he has scooped up? A blue kiddie pool about the size of a dining room table.

About 1 p.m. every Sunday, Doebler pushes his kayak over the seawall at his apartment complex on the Venetian Islands. He arms himself with a five-gallon bucket, green biodegradable trash bags, old rubber gloves, sunscreen and power bars to sustain him on the five-hour trek. Doebler pops open the lid to a storage compartment that runs the length of the kayak. That’s where he tosses all the recyclables he finds — mostly empty beer cans and water bottles.

Wearing a floppy hat, board shorts and a shirt emblazoned with the recycling symbol, he hops into the kayak and is off. He doesn’t get far before finding plenty of garbage to clean up.

Just opposite the apartment complex where Doebler lives is a city park. He paddles up to the seawall there and begins his cleanup along the jetty. He doesn’t touch biodegradables, such as paper or driftwood. Doebler scooped up a handful of seaweed laced with tiny round balls of broken-down Styrofoam.

“What’s particularly nefarious and driving me nuts these days is this stuff,” he says. “This stuff will float around in the ocean for 500 years.”

Then he’s off to dump his haul into a trash can and recycling bin at the park.

“What are you going to do with all that?” someone in the park calls out to Doebler.

“Throw it in the garbage,” Doebler says.

“Oh. You’re on a cleanup?” the man asks. “Thank you, sir. You got the right idea.”

Exchanges like this are what prompted Doebler to create a website,, to help people organize their own local cleanups. He regularly tells curious onlookers to check it out.

“I can only clean up a small section,” Doebler says. “But if you have me or five other people in Miami, or 10 we’ll start a grassroots movement.”

The rest of Doebler’s route takes him down the Collins Canal, where the bustle of Dade Boulevard is hidden by high retention walls. It would be a peaceful trek, if not for all the garbage Doebler compulsively collects. He stabs his paddle at trash along the banks, and at one point jumps into chest-high water to retrieve a submerged traffic cone.

Along the way to Lake Pancoast, bordered by Collins Avenue to the east and Pine Tree Drive to the west, he lumbers out his his kayak again to clear out two clogged storm drains.

The problem, Doebler said, starts with garbage on the streets that gets sucked into drains when it rains. So he wants to tackle the problem at its source, starting with more trash cans that are cleaned out more frequently.

The city already empties its 2,500 trash cans at least once a day — and up to four times a day in the busiest areas, such as Lincoln Road, said Carpenter, the city’s public works director.

Doebler also wants to see more enforcement of litter laws. In 2013, only 19 litter violations were issued, according to city records, though there have been significantly more violations issued for bringing glass or Styrofoam onto the beach. He also wants the city to promote a greater emphasis on recycling.

Recycling is mandatory in Miami Beach for multifamily buildings and commercial establishments, but the city has yet to enforce the law because of a built-in education period. Since the law was passed in 2012, said Carpenter, participation in the recycling program has doubled to 60 percent.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine has said he wants to see a more visible education campaign to make recycling “positive” and “fun” — even if it means buying ads on cable TV.

Other solutions may be out of the city’s reach. For example, Doebler would love to limit or even ban plastic retail bags — which he calls “urban tumbleweeds.” The problem is that the state prohibits any restrictions on the bags, although state Sen. Dwight Bullard has introduced a bill this legislative session that would create statewide standards for any municipalities that may decide to regulate them.

Doebler’s dream of seeing more recycling bins on the beach is a responsibility that falls on Miami-Dade County, which needs permission from the state to place more cans on the sand, Carpenter said.

The mayor has floated other ideas to tackle the city’s pollution problem. Levine, who works in the cruise ship industry, has suggested levying fines on hotels if their trash is found on the beach — much like the Coast Guard fines cruise ships if their garbage is found at sea.

But real change will probably require people to change their behavior, Doebler said.

The South Florida native never considered himself particularly environmentally conscious, until he began his weekly kayaking trips. Now, he refuses plastic straws, won’t buy produce wrapped in plastic and would sooner drink out of the bathroom faucet than buy a bottle of water.

“We can’t leave it up to the government,” Doebler said. “As a society, we have to evolve.”

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