Florida has much to learn from California’s sustainability practices

Picture this: it’s beautiful and sunny day out, a perfect beach day. You throw on the one swimsuit Instagram hasn’t seen yet, pack a bag with a towel, snacks, and tanning oil and head towards the car. You spend a few seconds picking the right playlist after starting the engine, and turn the volume all the way up as you pull out of your driveway. The loud music vibrates across the car doors and dashboard as you take a look at a long red line on your phone’s GPS, indicating you’ll be stuck in traffic for longer than you initially thought.

Now, where are you?

Depending on where you live in the United States, your answer might vary between the West or East Coast. And either answer would have been right, as California and Florida are both greatly known for their beaches, fitness culture, terrible traffic, and overpopulation. 

However, they are not so alike in their sustainability practices, meaning that the scenario of a California beach would have probably not included as many broken beer bottles and plastic bags as one from Florida.

“There’s a problem with plastic in our environment. Not only is this something that we see on a day-to-day basis, but it also has consequences that we don’t see when it lives in the ocean for all this time and it washes back on the shore,” said Trent Bryant, Education Associate at Clean Miami Beach.

While California ranks in the top 10 most sustainable states, according to the U.S. Sustainable Development Report from 2021, Florida is 33rd on the list. Similarly, while multiple California cities such as San Diego or San Francisco often top the list when it comes to eco-friendly practices, Florida rarely ever makes the list.

“Seeing as South Florida and Miami specifically are ground-zero for climate change and sea level rise, I think Florida and all our residents need to be more involved in policy and advocacy that can spark positive change in our state,” said Erin Cover, Education and Outreach Manager of Miami Waterkeeper, a local non-profit that advocates for South Florida’s watershed and wildlife.

While the state government has implemented regulations to reduce Florida’s ecological footprint, they haven’t always followed through. In 2008, for instance, the legislature established a statewide recycling goal of 75 percent to be achieved by 2020. The goal wasn’t accomplished, as the state only reached 50 percent.

“Government officials need to work collaboratively with others and reach out across the aisle to whoever has solutions,” said Barbara Martinez-Guerrero, Executive Director at Dream in Green. “They need to be more solutions-oriented and collaborative.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Executive Order 23-06 earlier this year, which calls for a record-setting $3.5 billion over four years to protect water resources and restore the Everglades. He has taken other steps towards preserving Florida’s natural ecosystems throughout his governance, such as appointing Wesley Brooks as the state’s first chief resilience officer to brace for flooding in 2021 and vetoing drilling of the state’s coast last year, 

However, the governor is also known for politicizing these issues—claiming he doesn’t like when these kinds of topics are used as a “pretext to do a bunch of left-wing things.” Additionally, in his book, The Courage to Be Free, DeSantis notes that he’s aware of how focusing on environmental issues can elevate support for his campaign and agenda.

“Private interest often competes with public interest, unfortunately, so we don’t know what is nudging their decisions,” said Bryant. “But I am optimistic. Representatives pay attention to what people at the individual level want. It’s a relationship that needs to be materialized and nurtured to actually manifest some tangible solutions.”

With Florida being a high-risk zone for hurricanes and other natural disasters, many residents believe that this vulnerability should push for action to not become so dependent on nonrenewable sources.

“Solar should be something we focus on so we are not dependent on grid systems that get damaged by storms,” said Martinez-Guerrero. “Planning needs to be done with nature-based solutions in mind to keep flooding in check, and building materials and designs that are resistant to these intense storms should be a standard for resiliency.”

California, on the other hand, is frequently advocating for the environment, both through education and passing bills that will reduce the state’s ecological footprint. 

“As someone who has visited California several times, I was shocked to see that plastic bags at grocery stores now have a price,” said Miami resident Isabella Vilasuso.

It recently became the first state to ban single-use plastic bags in grocery stores, and has passed a new regulation that hopes 35 percent of 2026 car models sold must be zero-emissions.

But this environmentally-conscious mentality isn’t new to the Golden State. In 1966, it became the first one to introduce tailpipe emissions standards. Four years later, then-Governor Ronald Reagan would pass the California Environmental Quality Act, which holds agencies accountable for their environmental impacts and still remains to this day one of California’s most important environmental laws.

“We’re so lucky that, in California, the governor and other local politicians, they’re the ones advocating for a more eco-friendly community,” said Raúl Arciga, founder of The Dream Agencia and resident of Fresno, California. “It all goes back to education. When people are following these practices, others tend to follow too.”

This education approach has translated into individual practices, where local residents often find ways to make up for whatever activity they may partake in that is harmful to the environment.

“Last weekend, we just planted like 75 trees. We have a lot of fires, unfortunately, in California, but we’re planting trees to make up for those that were burned. The same day we were doing this, there were around 475 events happening around the state in real time that were also planting trees,” said Arciga.

These types of cases, however, are not as common in the Sunshine State due to lack of awareness of climate change’s effects.

“People tend to care about things right in front of their face. It’s human nature to have a limited radius about topics you’re passionate about,” said TJ Morrell, co-founder of MORAES. “Environmentalism affects all of us, but in different ways. If there’s a better way to connect people to the issues at hand, then they might be more relatable.”

However, people tend to become interested once they understand the gravity of the issue, with some going the extra mile to individually reduce their ecological footprint.

“We were in contact with a group of people that wanted to get engaged in cleanups, and this man went out, saw an unfathomable amount of trash and collected over 500 pounds, just between him and his friends,” said Bryant. “He said that prior to that experience, he didn’t realize that this was even a problem.”

While much of a state’s environmental fate depends on its politicians’ agendas, simple tasks like recycling at home or reducing plastic use are adopted by many looking to reduce their individual impact on the environment.

“I think every little behavior makes a difference because if everyone makes them, it adds up to a big impact,” said Cover. “I don’t think it’s the sole solution, but I think everyone can do small things in their daily lives.”

Most activists agree that educating individuals on the dangers of climate change and not taking care of the planet can eventually lead to the positive, eco-friendly results that may ultimately save it.

“I’ve used the phrase ‘lead by example’ and that motivates me in my involvement with my organization,” said Bryant. “The sense of power that individuals have motivates me to want to continue to activate other individuals.”

Many environmental advocates have been particularly impressed by the activism of younger generations, and hope they’ll continue their work in the years to come.

“The voices of younger generations really matter,” said Arciga. “They are gonna do things that will be helpful and beneficial in the long term. I love that, because they’re taking action to build an America that’s for everyone.”

Sofia Colignon is a senior at Florida International University double majoring in English in the Writing and Rhetoric track and Digital Communication and Media in the Digital Journalism track. After completing her studies next summer term, she wishes to pursue a career within the entertainment field.