Brad Milliken and I go back quite a long way. From middle school bands to high school sports and everything in between. Now he and his wife Marissa are inspiring environmental change in their Virginia Beach home. They started a community clean up initiative called Your Better Beach . The clean-up process itself, as outlined on their site, is simple and can be replicated anytime by anyone in the community:
1. Fill a 16 oz. container with broken glass, plastic, or other litter you find on the beach.
2. Bring the full container to a participating local business and exchange for a reward.
3. The business will dump the beach garbage, then return the container to you with your reward.
With the support of local business, we can make your beach a better beach!
So far, fifteen businesses have responded to the call to action and partnered with the organization. The story behind Your Better Beach has also gotten media attention with a write up in the Virginian-Pilot and a feature spot on their local news station:
Brad took some time to answer questions of mine beginning what I hope is a continuing conversation on the interplay between local economies and the local environment.
Welch: How did you approach asking the first business to participate? Was it successful right away or did it take some convincing and/or trial and error?
Milliken: It really just kind of…happened. There’s a brewery I frequent called Pleasure House Brewery (Trivia things- gotta keep the crown!) and I’ve gotten to know the owners pretty well. Before I had thought the whole Your Better Beach concept through, I was bouncing ideas off Tim O’Brien, one of the owners. Before I’d finished telling him what I was thinking, he told me he was in and that PHB would support us with whatever we needed. I had a very similar experience with Chris Bailey, owner of Lynnhaven Coffee Company, and Carina Boqvist Bergdoll of Dish Restaurant VB. After running the idea by a few other small business owners and managers, I had the support of six businesses before I really even asked anyone to participate. By the time I had figured out what I was after and started walking door to door pitching it to local businesses, I’d grown pretty confident in the project.
A pillar of the project is the belief that everybody involved wins, and we’re able to communicate that pretty well. I’ll go into a place and pitch it to the first employee I see and ask to speak to their supervisor/floor manager. I’ll pitch it to that person and hope to get moved to the general manager, and then on to the owner. By the time I’m talking to who I need to talk to, I’ve already told three, sometimes four people what the project is about, and that’s translated to a larger social media following, which hopefully turns into more people being interested in cleaning their community. We’ve had great success at getting people to bite- now the issue is staying relevant.
Welch: Your site looks great by the way! How important is a professional web and social media presence for community activism?
Milliken: Hey thanks! I’m glad simple is “in” right now, because I don’t think I’m capable of doing anything too fancy with it! To answer your question- it’s all about being taken seriously. For better or worse, we’re at the point where a web presence is borderline mandatory. It’s a tool that should be able to provide all the information I would provide without me being there- If someone sees a flyer and checks out the website, we’re able to grow the project without expending any effort. My wife and I are both active duty right now (read: busy) so growing the project without expending too much time/effort is kind of the best thing ever.
Welch: I’m interested in the idea of over-looked trash brought up on the Wavy 10 video. Why do you think this sort of trash gets overlooked? & What’s the importance of taking care of the little things?
Milliken: I think it’s two-fold: 1) It’s small enough to say “that one piece of plastic doesn’t affect the whole beach.” but also 2) the amount of small trash is overwhelming. It’s almost as if there are so many small things out there that people put blinders on and pretend it isn’t there. A large part of it comes down to attention to detail- it’s not like our beaches are drowning in broken glass. We’re just trying to kickstart the vigilance necessary to keep an otherwise good beach pristine.
Welch: In the Virginian-Pilot article you mention a lot of the trash being swept in by the ocean. Do you see community driven clean-ups such as yours as a way to positively alter ocean (not just beach/shore) pollution?
Milliken: I see it as a step in the right direction. There are many more projects/foundations/innovations that are directed toward changing the course of garbage in the ocean. I’d say it’s one team, one fight. The benefits of having someone pick up items that wash ashore hopefully don’t end after they’ve discarded whatever they picked up. Hopefully, it engages them- where did this trash come from? Why is it here? What does this say about our waste habits? Picking up trash is great. Having a positive and lasting impact on a community is better.
Welch: Are you keeping track of the amount of trash collected or measuring data in anyway? If not do you have any plans to?
Milliken: We’re working on it!! Once we get all of the businesses lined up, we’ll start collecting data.
Welch: Do you have any advice to people interested in doing similar programs on other beaches?
Milliken: There’s a difference between how you pitch it and how it works. We pitch the project as a beach cleanup effort, which is totally true. We want cleaner beaches and we want people to care about their communities. However, if you look at all the true beach cleanup projects, the model is to go all in for one major cleanup event and get as much involvement as you can. We function more like the government recycling programs where the state gives you a few pennies for your bottles and cans. Instead of turning in bottles and cans, we want broken glass and beach garbage, and instead of the government providing a small monetary incentive, local businesses are choosing incentives of their own.
That’s my most technical advice, I suppose. For people who want to start doing something to improve their communities, don’t be afraid to lean on local small businesses. Things that are good for the community are good for them too; they can provide more advice and resources than you think!
Welch: Some expansion plans are mentioned in the Virginian-Pilot article as well, would you want this to grow large or is the hope to keep it focused on your local beach(es)?
Milliken: Great question. No idea as of yet. It’s really all about location. Where we’re focused has an unusually strong local business scene. It’s a residential area with minimal tourism and minimal chains. Even to expand to other parts of Virginia Beach would require almost a complete overhaul of the current model- It might be easier to apply the same model to similar areas in other cities before expanding to the areas closest to us. Both would have pros and cons. Our plan is to evaluate at the end of the summer and make the best decision for the project!