"We realized there was nobody to call to fix the problem," says Vince Albanese (left, with Jeff, right, and Mark Maksimowicz, center), with the Miss Mia in the background.
Having dinner at a waterfront restaurant in St. Petersburg, Fla., in April 2006, Mark Maksimowicz and his cousins Jeff and Vince Albanese were saddened to see a trail of bottles, cups and other debris. "We said, 'That's a shame,' " Vince recalls. "Then we said, 'What are we going to do?' "
For the three lifelong friends, the answer was to commit to a life of garbage. Mark, 47, a museum-operations director, and Jeff, 47, a computer systems analyst, quit their jobs (Vince, 48, a health-care executive, kept his); they purchased a $20,000 military-grade cargo boat and began hauling trash from the Tampa Bay waterways. So far, the trio – who've named their newly minted nonprofit the Green Armada – have invested $100,000 of their own savings, signed up 70 volunteers and collected some 25 tons of garbage. "If people see their neighbors doing something like this," says Mark Hostetler, an associate professor in conservation at the University of Florida, "it hits home."
The three – who grew up boating, swimming and fishing together in the area waterways – were surprised to learn that while local governments pick up trash on land, they don't take responsibility for the waterways. So they appointed themselves, getting permission from municipalities to dump the trash they collect at local sites for free. Money has been a struggle – Jeff and Mark have been scraping by on savings but plan to draw small salaries once more corporate donations kick in. Their goal: to acquire 20 boats by July and eventually expand across the country.
For now, five days a week with one or two volunteers aboard their 24-ft. boat – christened the Miss Mia for Mark's 6-year-old daughter – they pull over to the water's edge and, wearing rubber gloves and boots, fill dozens of garbage bags with dirty diapers, rusty bicycles and shredded sofa. "Some areas smell so bad, we gag," says Mark. And then they go back for more. Says Mark: "I can't give up."
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For more on the Green Armada, go to www.greenarmada.org