Diane Buhler had traveled from New York to South Florida on diving trips for decades, using the underwater world to escape the crush of the concrete jungle. But after losing friends during the September 11, 2001 attacks and supporting relief efforts at Ground Zero, she left Wall Street for West Palm Beach. “I needed to heal, and I needed to be by the ocean,” she says. “That’s my happy place.”
It wasn’t until Buhler became a full-time resident that she realized her happy place needed healing, too. “I found an ocean that needed me and animals that needed help because of the inundation of plastics and trash,” she says.
Buhler started organizing monthly beach cleanups with the help of the Solid Waste Authority, but she soon learned that once-a-month sessions weren’t enough to keep up with the amount of waste washing ashore. “We would leave a beach after one of those cleanups and the trash was still coming in with the winds,” she recalls. “I realized then and there I needed to do more.”
Buhler officially founded her nonprofit, Friends of Palm Beach, in 2014 with the mission of cleaning our beaches. But her organization does more than that; it’s also a transitional work program that recruits clients from The Lord’s Place and Vita Nova, local outreach agencies that help the homeless and aged-out foster children land on their feet. “This is a safe space,” she says. “It’s hard work and if you’re willing to show up and do the job, then I’ll keep you.”
Now her small but dedicated crew cleans seven-and-a-half miles of Palm Beach’s coastline five days a week and also works to educate the community about the impacts of pollution. On average, Buhler and her crew remove 750 pounds of trash each week—the equivalent of 1,600 pieces of trash per day—and 80 percent of that trash is nonbiodegradable plastic. To date, Buhler says she and her crew have removed more than 230,000 pounds of trash from Palm Beach’s shores.
“I had no idea the amount we were going to collect,” she admits. “I knew I was going to make a dent, but it’s huge what we’re able to get. Unfortunately it’s still only a small percentage of what is out there.”
What’s most rewarding, Buhler says, is seeing her crew making a difference every day. “They’re gaining a respect and an education about the environment and the community they live in and they’re taking that back home and buying differently and cleaning up their world. We all need to lend a hand, even if it’s something as small as picking up one piece of trash a day or five pieces a day—it all makes a difference.”