The State of Florida is celebrating 500 years of history, since the arrival of explorer Juan Ponce de León in 1513. Expedition Florida 500 is a modern-day excursion that derives its name from this historic milestone. Unlike Ponce de Leon, Expedition Florida 500 front man, Justin Riney, isn’t looking for new land to settle, rather to clean up, restore and protect Florida’s shorelines and waterways. He launched in Pensacola and has journeyed the state’s coastlines, engaging the public as he goes.
Not long ago, Justin Riney was wearing a suit and tie, spending his time between a cubicle and on airplanes for urban business travel. Now he’s traveling in a very different mode: by paddleboard.
As Riney paddles toward the shore of Melbourne’s Ballard Park, he has a friendly smile for the crowd waiting eagerly for his arrival. He and his traveling companion and photographer, Jackson Berger, have just encountered high winds and choppy waters on their way in from the Indian River Lagoon. If Riney is weary when he makes landfall, he’s not showing it.
The group that has gathered for Riney’s arrival has brought food, drinks and music. They have also brought along plenty of garbage bags. After the rough paddle, greeting people and posing for photo opts, Riney will spend the next hour or more picking up trash along the shoreline with the people gathered here today. He says these people keep him going, amid challanges to his cause.
“I’m inspired by the kids that come to our events with their eyes light up and they’re excited to be a part of it, you know. I’m not inspired by the trash and the degradation and the lack of ordinances in place for things like fertilizing bans, run-off and septic issues,” he adds. “The local leadership specifically can do a lot better in some of these areas. That’s just a constant battle that we’ll always be fighting.”
Hosting Riney’s visit and the cleanup at Ballard Park, is Denise Song from Keep Brevard Beautiful. She says one of the most common bits of plastic pollution found in Brevard County clean-ups are the straw wrappers that come with those little juice boxes.
She makes her way around the park, picking up plastic utensils, cigarette butts, bottle caps, and yes, those straw wrappers.
“This kind of bothers me, that within just a couple of feet of a garbage can there’s so much trash, but it’s why we’re here,” she says.
Expedition Florida 500 front man Justin Riney adds to the list of offenders, from what he has seen along his travels: shoes, light bulbs, plastic bags, plastic cups. He says it’s sad to think that the trash that floats is actually a small percentage of what’s out there. Everything else is sitting on the bottom of the ocean.
So Riney is cleaning up what others have left behind, as he goes. He is also very careful to not leave anything behind himself. He doesn’t have much to leave, though. Everything he owns is on that board he paddled in on. Riney sold most of his belongings before starting out on Expedition Florida 500. He says the only thing separating him from a homeless person now is that the communities he visits embrace and welcome him.
And this waterman is not sorry to have shed the material things from his life.
“I encourage it, man. Sell your stuff. Get rid of all of it. You know a lot of this stuff is not necessary that we’ve just come to think is important. It’s really not,” he says
In just a couple of days, Riney will arrive in Jacksonville, marking the end of the coastal portion of Expedition Florida 500. Next he’ll be focusing inward: paddling back through the state by inland waterways.
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