Riding up Amelia Island’s northeastern shore on a bicycle with a basket and a grabber, Amy Wade, 50, wakes up at dawn every day in pursuit of the trash and treasures that the new tides supply overnight.
“I live in paradise,” she says of Fernandina Beach, a home for which she has great affection, where she acts locally and thinks globally. “I watch people walk right by trash. And I don’t go say ‘pick that trash up,’ I’ll just go pick it up. And if I don’t have a glove, I’ll pick it up with my toe and carry it to the trash can like that!”
Wade isn’t your average environmentalist. She was born and raised on the St. Mary’s River in Hilliard, Florida, as evidenced by her deep southern drawl. Wearing shorts and a neon tank top with iron-on letters reading Beach Junki in all caps, she is warm and unpretentious, bringing humility to the often-arrogant climate of eco-activism.
“I’m a country girl that lives at the beach,” Wade told Folio Weekly, “And you can write that one down.”
Wade has a supernatural talent for finding artifacts and wildlife on the coast. She’s found and successfully returned two sets of dentures. She’s rescued two alligators, several sea turtles and around 20 seabirds, and she’s buried just as many. Through her Facebook page, more than a few pairs of sunglasses have been returned to their rightful owners.
At times the line between trash and treasure is blurred for her, though. Wade holds onto anything she considers unique. When it comes to miscellaneous plastic debris, she tosses clear items like sandwich bags and water bottles and keeps anything in color - this includes ribbon, glow sticks, chewed-up flip flops, bottlecaps, used floss sticks and cracked lightbulbs.
She uses these items to raise awareness of what’s washing up and hopes to work with visual artists to make something of her collection.
“I try to collect colorful stuff that brings out attention,” said Wade, “stuff that will catch people’s eye.”
In years of cleaning up the beach, Wade estimates that she’s thrown out a dumpster full of trash and brought home about half a dumpster full of junk. She has more than a dozen large containers of shoreline finds in her shed - an impressive collection that includes more than 600 sunglasses, as well as hundreds of beach toys, lighters and shotgun shells.
The name “Beach Junki” actually predates her habit of collecting beach junk: it stems from her addiction to the beach itself.
In 2007, Wade moved into an attic just a block away from Main Beach Fernandina. She wasn’t hooked on the beach right away, though. After living there for a while in a downhearted state, she went to watch the sunrise in an attempt to heal her soul.
“And it did, it healed me! I discovered the beauty of it and I was like, this is the most peaceful thing in my life,” said Wade, “And it just kind of progressed into an addiction.”
One of her first finds in this progression was in 2013, when she found and rescued a sea turtle during one of her morning strolls.
“After that, I though, you know what, this is my calling. There’s something trying to get my attention. I had a Beach Junki visor on. I had a name, didn’t know what to do with it.”
This was the point at which she started picking up trash during her visits to the beach. Wade said it all fell together when she realized she wanted to protect the turtles from all the jusk washing up. She recalls that in her first cleanup, she found a video cassette box, a milk jug and a balloon.
“Once I was out on the beach, that’s how I started learning there’s a lot of crap out there on that beach.”
Wade knew that she wanted to keep the turtles safe and the shoreline beautiful, but she didn’t have any direction, just a “cute name.”
“It was more of a brand at that point. I didn’t have all this trash,” Wade told Folio Weekly, “It was still new and fresh. I didn’t know where I was taking Beach Junki but I knew I wanted to educate people.”
“It wasn’t until 2015 when I thought of joining One Spark. I thought, I’ve got this idea of a name, maybe I can go with it.”
She joined the crowdfunding event formerly held in Downtown Jacksonville under the Social Good creator category. Although she didn’t have any formal education or experience, she noticed through her frequent beach visits that the bulk of the trash that was washing up was plastic bottles, balloons and plastic bags. Knowing that much, she did internet research and put educational poster boards together about the dangers of BPA in plastic and alternatives to single-use plastics.
“I learned so much doing One Spark. I knew that if I had positive feedback I would continue Beach Junki,” said Wade.
Her creator project received 400 votes that year.
About a year and a half later, Hurricane Irma hit the coast of Florida. It stripped the sand from the coast and the dunes revealing lost artifacts that were buried beneath it, and brought debris up from the ocean floor. At this point, Wade started to take some of the washed-up items home with her.
“I was amazed at what was washing up,” said Wade. She had found an IV bag from Cuba, hypodermic needles and old pill bottles with tablets still in them.
“I started thinking I can’t put this in the trash, that’s defeating the whole purpose. I’m finding it, I need to do something productive with it. It’s pretty, it’s colorful, it’s toys! I started getting containers and storing it.”
“Once I started finding all this cool stuf, it was a very bad addiction. Because I’m searching for this stuff now, and I have piles of it at my house, so it is an addiction to see what I can find. What’s the most unique thing I can find that day: an alligator? Some dentures? An iPhone?”
Wade starts every day with the sunrise, which she considers her peace and never takes for granted. Along with the new day’s sun, something different comes up with the tide every day, feeding Wade’s compulsion to search for and acquire the next piece of plastic to remove from the shoreline and add to her collection.
“ not only polluting the environment and the beach, it’s harming our sea turtles, whales are eating it. If I don’t get it out of the water, it’s gonna be eaten by marine life.”
“I have a mission, I’m dedicated. I wake up every day, I’ve got this energy. I want to put it to good use.”
Recently, Wade applied to make Beach Junki a nonprofit organization. This would allow her to reach more people for organized beach cleanups and receive donations for supplies like grabbers and vests. She was affiliated with the Nassau non profit, Friends of Fort Clinch, where she gained administrative experience.
Wade highlighted the importance of beach education, another component of her growing organization, using balloons as an example. When she first started cleaning up the beach, balloons plagued the shoreline, but through public exposure, people started looking for alternatives to balloon releases to celebrate deceased loved ones.
“People remember family, they want to release a balloon to heaven and I got news for you: those balloons don’t make it to heaven but the sea turtles do, that eat that balloon,” said Wade, “I know if they knew that their specific balloon would cause the death of a creature they wouldn’t release it.”
She shared her journey to applying for nonprofit status with Folio Weekly: “I care about people, children, wildlife, marine life, animals. I want to protect the things that I love. That’s the point of Beach Junki, I started out with just a cute name, I learned that I need to take this to beach education, now going into a nonprofit is going to be really hard to get going, but I’m not gonna give up. I done came too far.”
Wade’s non profit wish list includes a van to transport volunteers and supplies, a wrap on it to create a focal point and bring attention to the organization, and a Beach Junki shack stocked with merch and gear to serve as a sea turtle and beach education station.
As for her junk, she’s looking to her community to help her make something of it. Wade has bins upon bins of building material and more piling up every day, and is keeping an open mind in regards to what to do with it.
She said, “I’m looking for artists to help me create something special. We could go simple or we could go extravagant. We could go small or we could go big. I’m just looking for artists to help me decide what we can do with what I’ve collected.”