Green Armada sets sail

The goal: cleaner water and coastlines. But it's not a job for the faint-hearted.

Published January 4, 2007

TAMPA - Mark Maksimowicz bent over the sand next to the Howard Frankland Bridge, scooped up a plastic Gatorade bottle filled with urine and started to gag.

He held up the litter like a prize just before he stuffed it inside a garbage bag.

One bottle down, hundreds more to go.

"We find everything but money," he said on a recent morning.

Maksimowicz and cousins Vincent and Jeff Albanese have begun an unusual effort to rid the coastline and inland waterways around Pinellas and Hillsborough counties of trash.

While local governments collect garbage from homes and businesses, cleaning up trash from waterways is generally left to environmentally minded groups.

The Green Armada Foundation formed in November and is seeking nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service.

The group wants to secure corporate sponsors willing to attach their logos to its 24-foot military cargo boat-turned-garbage scow. A 6- by 17-foot banner flies above the boat: "Sponsors Needed ... Your Logo Here."

The boat travels to local bridges and causeways and anchors in full view of passers-by. Maksimowicz and his crew, wearing plastic boots and gloves, pick up litter one piece at a time and haul it away.

They say they collected eight tons of litter in two months.

Judging by the amount of cast-off lumber, bottles, tires, garbage bags and Styrofoam at the Howard Frankland on a recent trip, there's no shortage of debris.

"When we first started, we all thought we'd be able to fix this," said Maksimowicz, 47, former operations manager at the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg. "We realized we can't fix the problem, but we can make a difference and draw attention to it."

The Green Armada's goal is to go statewide - with more boats, of course.

It hopes to host regular Green Armada days - litter collection drives - starting this month, with volunteers from companies such as Wal-Mart and Joffrey's Coffee and Tea House.

The group is not aligned with such better-known organizations as the Suncoast Sierra Club or Tampa Bay Watch.

Members of other local beautification groups say they applaud the Green Armada and hope its mission is pure.

"Anything to get garbage out of the water is a good thing," said Mike McCleary, southwest Florida director of the national group Clean Water Action. "It's amazing what's out there."

Philip Compton, chairman of the nonprofit Friends of the River in Hillsborough County, said he's happy to hear the Green Armada is raising private money because local governments have limited resources.

The city of Tampa has yet to find funds to operate a boat for collecting debris in the Hillsborough River.

"We tend to accept there's trash in the bay and river and there's nothing we can do about it," Compton said. "That isn't true.

"If corporations and companies can step up here in Tampa Bay ... it could really go a long way in improving the beauty of the Hillsborough River and Tampa Bay."

Based on the amount of litter collecting on the coastline, Bill Sanders, director of Keep Pinellas Beautiful, said what the Green Armada is doing is definitely needed.

Last year, 4,800 volunteers collected more than 233,000 pounds of litter in Pinellas County - about 65 percent of which came from the shorelines.

Tons of pollution ends up in the waterways after slipping from roads through stormwater drains. About half of Florida's waterways are considered impaired by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Maksimowicz of St. Petersburg and Jeff Albanese, 47, of Palm Harbor said the three cousins love Florida and want to see it pollution-free.

"I've always been into animals and the environment," said Albanese, who also does freelance design work for VB Studios. "A lot of environmentalists make the mistake of attacking businesses.

"We're trying to take the easygoing approach."

But picking up garbage takes money, Maksimowicz said.

The boat and equipment cost $35,000.

The Green Armada's goal is to raise $162,000 next year and $220,000 in 2008. A one-month sponsorship, which includes a company's logo displayed on the boat, costs $1,000.

The Green Armada's IRS application says each of the three men will earn $25,000 a year initially.

But if the IRS refuses the tax-exempt status, Maksimowicz said, the Green Armada will carry out the same mission as a profit-making company.

"This isn't a money deal," said Maksimowicz, who tried a similar but unsuccessful advertising venture called Sea Signs about six years ago.

"It's about figuring out a problem and not being a burden on taxpayers. Who else is going to go out there and pick up that trash?"

When the Green Armada pulled away from the Howard Frankland after a two-hour sweep recently, the boat carried nine bags of litter weighing about 500 pounds. In the bags were a tire, one unopened condom, a legless chair and dozens of plastic bottles.

And left behind on the sand was a Green Armada buoy tied to a mangrove - and a lot more trash for another day.

Melanie Ave can be reached at 727 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:


Beautification efforts in area

-Green Armada Foundation: www.greenarmada.org or 1-800-496-9161.

-Keep Pinellas Beautiful: www.keeppinellasbeautiful.org or (727)533-0402.

-Friends of the River: www. friendsofhillsboroughriver. org or (813)237-8497.

-Keep Hillsborough County Beautiful: www.khcbonline.org or (813)960-5121.

-Suncoast Sierra Club: http://florida.sierraclub.org/suncoast/suncoast.html or (727)945-0999.

-Tampa Mayor's Beautification Program: www.mbptree.org or (813)221-8733.

-Tampa Bay Watch: www.tampabaywatch.org or (727)867-8166.

-Keep Citrus County Beautiful: www.keepcitruscounty beautiful.org or (352)746-9393.

-Keep Pasco Beautiful: http://keeppascobeautiful.org or (727)379-9200.