Mill McCleary: Steward of Plastic Free Key West

Mill McCleary, executive director of the 1,300-member Reef Relief organization based in Key West, knows how to effectively utilize advocacy and organizational skills to create tangible impacts through clean water and healthy ecosystems.

This year, McCleary (“Mill” is a nickname for the fourth-generation family name of “Millard”) spearheaded the Plastic Free Key West resolution to motivate businesses to voluntarily commit to reduce or eliminate single-use plastics through sustainable replacement strategies. The resolution was adopted by the Key West City Commission in January to stem plastic pollution in waters surrounding the Keys.

The initiative has three tiers. Tier 1 businesses are committed to reduce utilization of one single-use item, Tier 2 companies pledge to reduce use of two items, while Tier 3 operations are fully committed to reduce all single-use plastics.

An interactive map guides visitors and residents toward the Plastic Free Key West businesses.

Other Reef Relief initiatives overseen by McCleary have included establishment of Key West Marine Park, the founding of the organization’s Coral Camp for Kids, and adding Reef Relief as a member of the Everglades Coalition.

Expansion of Reef Relief’s education has been a major priority, with programs reaching 11,000 students in the Keys and around the world. Online Zoom classes, covering about a dozen topics, attract up to 500 attendees. The Reef Explorers Camp for 10- to 15-year-olds includes three-night, two-day camping excursions to Dry Tortugas National Park, where students conduct fish counts and learn about coral restoration science.

McCleary grew up in the Baltimore area, fishing around Chesapeake Bay, and attended Carroll Community College in Westminster, Maryland. He quickly rose through the ranks at Clean Water Action, beginning as a student and later earning the title of senior field director.

His water quality advocacy career has included 16 years at Clean Water Action in Baltimore and traveling around the country to open various offices for Working America, the political organizing arm of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO), and for Clean Water Action in Tampa.

During a six-month paid vacation (spent fishing, surfing and camping), McCleary was invited to lunch with Craig and Deevon Quirolo, founders of Reef Relief. He later discovered the casual get-together in Brooksville, Florida, was a job interview seeking a successor at Reef Relief.

When not working, McCleary enjoys fishing, baseball and spending time with wife Melissa, a captain and office manager at Danger Charters — and with rescue pup Curty, who can often be found napping at the Reef Relief office.

Keys Traveler: When did you first come to the Florida Keys and why?

Mill McCleary: I was hired to be the executive director of Reef Relief on March 1, 2008, when the organization’s founders retired.

KT: What aspects of the Keys environment or way of life matter most to you?

MM: I love that Key West is a small community where you see people you know everywhere, pretty much every day. There are so many ways to enjoy the ocean here — kayaking the mangroves, exploring the reef, fishing or hanging at the sandbar.

KT: Who or what inspired you to become passionate about respecting and protecting the Keys’ natural world?

MM: I grew up fishing around the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, and learned at a young age how important clean water and healthy habitats are to marine environments.

KT: How does that passion influence your work or profession?

MM: I am very fortunate to be able to work with something I care deeply about. That makes being motivated come naturally.  

KT: What are some of the ways, personally or through your work, that you connect with and/or help protect the local environment and unique lifestyle?

MM: Reef Relief has many programs to address awareness and improve water quality. I’m personally very proud of our school program and Coral Camp.

KT: What keeps you energized, challenged and focused on your path?

MM: We can measure our success. Could be from seeing the number of volunteers showing up at one of our marine debris removal events or the amount and weight of debris collected. I also know of kids I had in camp at 6 years old who are now studying marine science in college. That makes me proud.

KT: What do you hope your positive environmental actions will accomplish?

MM: To inspire more youths to pursue environmental careers. And I hope to also begin seeing our marine ecosystems recovering.

KT: What message do you want your actions and example to communicate to people you encounter?

MM: We all have an impact, and we can all make a difference. I want people to know how vitally important our ocean is in sustaining all life on the planet.

KT: What’s your favorite natural or eco-friendly activity in the Keys?

MM: Snorkeling at the reef.