Bay View Resident Tackles Plastic Trash At South Shore Beach

December 30, 2017

By Sheila Julson

Marla Schmidt, in conjunction with the Stop Sucking movement, started a pilot program in Milwaukee with three restaurants, whose owners have dispensed with using plastic straws and have replaced them with paper straws.         —Photo Jennifer Kresse

What began as a relaxing, meditative hobby has turned into a crusade for Bay View resident Marla Schmidt.

While Schmidt and her mother searched South Shore Beach for beach glass this summer, Schmidt noticed a glut of litter, specifically plastic products, that washed up on shore. She began picking it up: straws, disposable cigar holders, single-use dental floss holders, fast food cups, straws, toys, and more. (Beach glass is formed when pieces of bottles, tableware, and other glass objects are rolled and buffeted by wave action in a body of water.)

For two days a week, approximately two hours each day between June 8 and November 27, 2017, Marla Schmidt picked up plastic waste on a half-mile stretch of South Shore Beach. —Photo Marla Schmidt

Faced with the dilemma of where to dispose of the collected plastic waste, Schmidt was prompted to research the trail of our trash. She toured the city’s recycling center — Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful building and Materials Recovery Facility, and she gathered recycling and plastic-use statistics through sites such as Lonely Whale, where she learned of their “Stop Sucking” campaign to discourage use of plastic straws. Inspired, Schmidt connected with the Stop Sucking movement and started a pilot program in Milwaukee. The participants are Bowls, in the Third Ward; Mistral, in the Avalon Theater building; and Sheridan’s, in Cudahy.

Schmidt, a massage therapist and wellness coach, said her current mission to change the mindset about single-use plastic falls in line with the same way she works with her clients. “When we want something to be different, we have to first have an awareness,” she said.

Marla Schmidt and her parents Ron and Marge Tessmer. —Courtesy Marla Schmidt

Apple A Day didn’t keep stress away

Schmidt grew up in Bay View. She and her former husband Dan Schmidt worked in the corporate world and lived in New York and San Francisco before moving back to the Milwaukee area in 1999. Desiring a career change, Schmidt attended Blue Sky School of Professional Massage & Therapeutic Bodywork in Grafton.

In the late 1990s, massage was mostly viewed as luxurious pampering rather than therapeutic, Schmidt explained, but her approach to massage was based on the whole-person wellness model that includes nutrition, natural products, and stress reduction. She incorporated it into her practice when she opened Apple A Day Massage in 2000; one of the first massage businesses in Bay View. Dan, who later trained in acupuncture at Midwest College of Oriental Medicine, eventually provided acupuncture at Apple A Day.

Schmidt noted that the massage industry has gone through many cycles. When student loans became available for massage therapy school, the result was an influx of new practitioners. Some massage schools promoted the glamorous side of a career in massage therapy, Schmidt said, while downplaying realities like how hard it is to make a living practicing massage full-time.

Schmidt soon realized it would be challenging to find like-minded people who shared her mission of providing whole-person wellness and building trusting relationships with clients. “It was difficult finding good quality help,” she said. “You can learn technique in massage school, but you have to hire the personality. If they didn’t have the same mindset as to why I created the business, they weren’t a good fit.”

While dealing with a full-time massage schedule, as well as marketing, payroll, and a retail component of the business, Schmidt’s own wellbeing suffered. “Here I am educating people about taking care of themselves, and behind the scenes my own life was falling apart, and my marriage was on the rocks,” she said.

The financial crisis of 2008-2009 added another obstacle to operating a business. In February 2011, a city-paralyzing snowstorm hit Milwaukee. The day the storm hit, Schmidt was set to have the highest revenue day in her entire business history. All the massage and acupuncture appointments were booked, so Schmidt was determined to stay open.

Mother Nature had other ideas. “I couldn’t even get out of my garage after that storm,” Schmidt said.

Apple A Day stayed closed for two days after the snowstorm as the city dug its way out of the blizzard. “The universe was trying to tell me something,” she said. “It was this tsunami, we were still squeaking by after financial crisis, and we realized that we were going to be in trouble.”

Schmidt made the difficult decision to permanently close Apple A Day Massage. In April 2011, she found a small space on Burrell Street to practice and she rebranded her business as Moon Fox Massage. She operated Moon Fox for a year and enjoyed what she referred to as a decompression period, but she found herself at a crossroad.

A year prior to closing Apple A Day, Schmidt had considered selling her house, which she said started to feel like a tether. She was always drawn to Native American ways, and she decided to learn the teachings of the medicine people. Through a friend in Sedona, she heard of Four Winds, a school in Utah that offered certification in shamanic energetic medicine. Schmidt also saw a posting on Facebook that advertised a management position at Grace Grove Retreat Center, just outside of Sedona.

The opportunity to work at Grace Grove, and to attend classes at Four Winds in Utah, coincided with the sale of her home. The final piece of Schmidt’s puzzle was making sure that her massage clients were cared for. She contacted one of her most trusted former employees, Jeanne Zautner, who, along with a business partner, Tanya Heinecke, purchased Schmidt’s business and renamed it Healium Wellness.

Keeping only possessions that would fit into her car, Schmidt was ready to begin the next chapter of her life in Sedona.

You can go home again

“Everything that happened was so necessary and so perfect for what I needed at the time,” Schmidt said of her time in Sedona. “I was in a community of healers, we were helping people, and it taught me to live in a state of gratitude.”

In April 2014, Schmidt was offered a position at Four Winds. She would need to be in Miami for a year to train, but once she trained, she could perform the job remotely from anywhere.

While visiting her parents that year, Schmidt noticed her father, who has dementia, was getting worse. Schmidt offered to return to Milwaukee for six months with the hope of helping her father through proper nutrition and getting him off the multiple medications he was on. Schmidt also worried about her mother, who was dealing with stress in her caregiving role.

When Schmidt returned for what she thought was a temporary move, word got around among her former massage clients that she was back, so she started doing massage once a week while still helping her father. Schmidt’s brother, who has multiple sclerosis, also needed her help, so this past spring Schmidt made the decision to stay in Milwaukee.

“Maybe my work here is not done. I’m at a place where I feel that something is just not finished here for me,” she said.

Picking up plastic

Schmidt began taking her mother, and occasionally her father, for walks through South Shore Park. They walked along the beach. One day Schmidt really took notice of the plastic litter.

“There’s always trash on the beach, but on that particular day, it really caught my attention,” she recalled. She began picking it up, and in one small area, she collected the equivalent of a grocery bag full of trash, mostly plastic. “That was the beginning of an obsession. I couldn’t not see it anymore.”

For two days a week, approximately two hours each day between June 8 and November 27, Schmidt picked up plastic waste on a half-mile stretch of the beach. “I was so shocked, I started posting photos on Facebook,” she said. Cans, Styrofoam, straws, fast food cups, disposable cigar holders, tampon applicators, syringes, plastic beach toys, and doll parts are commonplace among the objects that Schmidt found washed up on shore.

Schmidt praised the sophisticated sorting machinery at Milwaukee’s Materials Recovery Facility, but her research showed that our society must to do a better job controlling the amount of plastic waste that is generated in the first place.

“We think we’re doing well with recycling, but we’re not,” she said. Through Plastic Pollution Coalition, she found that most single-use plastic items can take over to 200 years to break down in a landfill, and many items never break down.

Visual photos and statistics are important in generating awareness, Schmidt said. “We are so programmed in the way of having things fast and convenient that we don’t even think about how we use a straw for a couple of minutes, but that that straw never goes away,” she said.

Schmidt realizes that long-term change happens gradually by altering attitudes and habits. Through the Stop Sucking campaign, the restaurant staff at Bowls, Mistral, and Sheridan’s is being trained to give straws only upon request. Furthermore, the restaurants will use paper straws instead of plastic.

“The reason I’m going with the straw thing is because it’s the easiest way for people to make changes,” she said. “People take straws without even thinking about it, and to me it’s the one single thing that represents the plastics industry. They’re so unnecessary.”

For more information and additional photos of Marla Schmidt’s efforts dedicated to reducing single-use plastic waste, visit

For more information about the nonprofit organizations referenced in this article, consult, and

Sheila Julson is a freelance writer and contributor to the Bay View Compass.

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One Comment on "Bay View Resident Tackles Plastic Trash At South Shore Beach"

  1. Shelly Galligan on Sun, 31st Dec 2017 1:11 pm 

    I am so proud and grateful to call this amazing woman my friend…

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