profile: jeremy waks

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

profile: jeremy waks:

working to keep our oceans clean

Jeremy Waks thinks big. Like seven seas big. 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean big.
And every day he encourages small individual acts that he believes will add up to big results.
Waks is co-founder of Debris Free Oceans, a non-profit dedicated to managing “the lifecycle of plastics and waste as part of a global initiative to eradicate marine debris from our beaches, reefs, and oceans.” Born and raised in Miami with a degree in Environmental Science from the University of Florida, Waks is now a Miami Beach resident. He is also a serial entrepreneur, putting his money where his heart is, developing a new sustainable residential condo building in Coconut Grove.
Growing up in a coastal community, Waks has always been passionate about the ocean. Now he says he’s “trying to create an eco system of people who can be activists like us,” referring to his co-founders at Debris Free Oceans, including his fiancé, Caiti Pomerance, the group’s president.
He reels off facts about the seriousness of the marine debris – especially plastics – problem. Trillions of pieces of non biodegradable plastic in the ocean each year which take hundreds of thousands of years just to break into smaller pieces.
According to Debris Free Oceans, plastics compose 60-80% of marine debris in the world’s oceans. Dispersing via currents, marine debris accumulates into floating trash piles, one of which in the North Pacific Ocean spans nearly 7 million square miles.
Waks says we have become a single consumption, throw it out society without concern for what that means. “People don’t think what happens when they throw it out … Plastics not only aesthetically look bad, they have a lot of toxins in them.” Marine animals mistake plastic (made with oil) and other trash for food, which kills some and creates serious health issues for others. That sets another cycle in motion that impacts us. “The fish eat it, we eat it. It magnifies up the food chain,” Waks says.
Debris Free Oceans uses what it calls a “5Rs Approach” to creating solutions:
  • Reduce consumption of disposable and single use plastics.
  • Reuse: Create innovative ways to use what we already have.
  • Recycle: If it can’t be reused, regenerate it for other uses.
  • Recover: The group recovers marine debris to prevent its consumption by marine life.
  • Redesign: They take the process to an innovative and fun next step, remaking marine debris “into artistic and functional contributions to our society.”
The focus on making an impact throughout the lifecycle of products includes working with companies to help them eliminate waste and “increase product reuse and recycle capacity.”
The power of the individual is key to making change. To encourage that, Debris Free Oceans has educational programs on the importance of reducing single use consumption and conducts research into marine debris dispersal – how much and where it goes – and uses that data in its programs. They host local cleanups and lifestyle awareness events. The cleanups, Waks says, are wonderful social opportunities while doing good. “We are picking up so many pounds of plastic,” he says, “We are making a dent.”
Outside of organized cleanups, Waks says there are things each of us can do every day to make a difference. Use metal tumblers for drinks, avoid plastic straws or cups, support restaurants that have more sustainable practices, talk to a friend about their use of plastics and join them at a cleanup. “People need to understand they can impact the community on an individual level,” he says. “If everyone does something every day, it will make a difference.” And, he encourages everyone to bring ideas. “Be part of the solution! We want to hear your ideas.”
Debris Free Oceans also works on impacting law and policy reform. The initiative to ban plastic bags is one of them. That issue is regulated by the state. “State law pre-empts us from protecting ourselves,” Waks says. “We are working to overturn the pre-emption so we can protect ourselves.”
In addition to Debris Free Oceans, Waks is focused on creating sustainable living environments. His new project Grove Arbor is a 52 unit residential building in Coconut Grove that will include a bike share on-site, a recycling program, energy efficient appliances, LED lighting, and a community garden, in addition to many plants and trees on the property. He is also looking into using solar power for common areas.
“I wanted to mix the entrepreneurial mindset with environmental service,” Waks says, something that for him becomes more important as time progresses. “We need to be more efficient; need to take care of our homes, our communities and our eco system for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren.”
The building will only allow a maximum of 2 leases per year for a more family-oriented building. Its location encourages leaving cars at home. It is in a walkable neighborhood, close to parks and other eco friendly activities including kayaking, paddleboats, and sailing. “Less time in the car,” he says, “the more we can live, work, eat, hang out in the community.”
He adds, “I wanted to put thought into action, be conscious about the buildings and how they impact our community.”
With what can sometimes feel like an overwhelming picture of the harm being done to our environment, Waks says we can do this. “Humans are incredible individuals. We’ve been able to adapt. We need to adapt more rapidly. We’re behind the curve. We’ve just reacted to this point. We need to be less reactive and more ‘leading the way.’”
“I’m very optimistic,” he says. “It’s the only way to go through life.” With people like Jeremy, we’re optimistic too.”