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Trash on the beaches

The Ugly Truth Behind The Trash On The Beaches Of Puerto Rico

Today is International Coastal Cleanup Day. Here in Puerto Rico, volunteers, Army ROTC, and students around the island are participating in an island-wide cleanup effort. It is nice to see all the people on the beaches picking up garbage – something we do every time we walk outside. And the good news is that it is not just focused on the coast – rivers, lakes and other water bodies are also included.

This is a great cause and we went out there for a while but I am exhausted and we have to work now. We have spent the majority of the last three days volunteering with a local community group and trying to squeeze in work in-between. I feel way behind on my to-do list.

Trash on the beaches
International Cleanup Day

But, let me tell you the ugly truth about the trash on the beaches of Puerto Rico.

Throughout the years of travel to the Caribbean, we have seen trash everywhere, it is a problem almost anywhere in this part of the world. However, being that Puerto Rico is a US territory, you might think that it is better in that respect. If that’s your expectation, you will be greatly disappointed. In fact, short of Bocas Del Toro in Panama, Luquillo’s eastern beaches are the worst we have seen anywhere.

Why?

Good question. Unlike in Panama, where the problem seemed to be mostly caused by the tourists, the problem here appears to be caused by the locals. They can be local tourists, of course, but nonetheless they are Puerto Ricans. I have personally witnessed countless examples of people throwing trash, leaving behind trash (after spending the day on the beach), and even dumping trash. Really?!

People show up on the beaches on the weekends, bring lots of food, supplies, and alcohol and when they depart, they leave it all behind. The mindboggling thing is that there are plenty of trash bins around; in fact, we have one on our beach about every 20 feet.

A few nights ago, I observed a group of young people parting on the beach right in front of our apartment. They were passing around a bottle of rum and, ironically, they were right next to a trashcan. When they finished their rum, they threw the bottle out onto the beach – what?!

I do not understand this and it is definitely the most frustrating thing I have encountered here in Puerto Rico. Since we got here, I have been asking everyone for the reason for this phenomenon.

Trash pickup
Trash pickup from volunteer points.

I have heard many theories:

  1. It’s a cultural thing
  2. Everyone feels that it is not their job to clean up after themselves
  3. People think that if they leave the trash, they keep someone employed (presumably someone who is paid to clean the beach)
  4. It’s a macho thing
  5. They leave the trash behind for the feral cats and dogs

And the list goes on. Except, there is no one to clean up the beaches, the dogs and cats don’t eat bottles, plastic, or dirty diapers, and, while DNR is in charge of the beaches, it seems no one is paid to pick up the trash here.

So, the problem continues. Big organized efforts, like today, are awesome. We hope to see more of that kind of thing but, honestly, I do not believe these efforts are the solution, any more than us picking a bag of trash off the beach each time we walk (which is almost daily).

clean beach
This is what we want our beaches to look like.

The problem really is awareness, behavior change, and accountability. If everyone thinks it is not their job to pick up their trash, then no one ever does. If people do not perceive the trash as a problem, these behaviors continue. If there are no penalties enforced for dumping garbage at the beach or leaving garbage behind, what is the incentive to clean up after yourself? I would think having a clean beach to enjoy would be enough but it is obviously not.

And so, we are involved and invested. We want to make this a better place to live and preserve this amazing natural environment for future generations. We are trying to figure out a way to make a difference, over time, in a sustainable way. So that in five, ten, twenty years, the 12-miles of incredible Luquillo beaches are clean and enjoyable for all. We are hoping that a newly formed group of concerned citizens, Amigos de Luquillo, can help us in this effort.

Here’s to clean beaches!

Joanna-

About Joanna

is a Polish American living in Arizona with her husband Tim. She is a founding partner of JTR Tech and she is proud to be a professional geek. She had dreamt of living abroad for many years. So, she and Tim created AbroadDreams.com to document the process of making their dream of moving abroad come true. They spent 2 years in Puerto Rico and several months in Spain and Poland. Now they are exploring the American Southwest.

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12 comments

  1. Omg!! I lived there for 8 years of my life and the trash was a major issue. Especially at the parks. I mean it was everywhere. The kids couldn’t even play. I heard the west is the best and I am willing to go back and see for myself.

    • Hi Monique,
      It has gotten a lot better. The current Mayor is very good about cleaning the city and beaches up. In fact, just today we had a big volunteer cleanup on Playa Azul – lots of folks showed up to rake, pick up trash and the city is removing all the seaweed now. Luquillo is changing and I believe (and hope) that together we are all building awareness.
      Joanna

  2. Hi Joanna
    Nice blog! I am from Puerto Rico and have a vacation home in Palmas Del Mar so am back on island frequently. The garbage is a problem and I say it bothers me a lot. Not sure of why, however I do believe it improves a bit every year (except in certain parts of island). I hate to say it but in my opinion Fajardo (where all the tourists go) is one of the most littered and polluted parts of the island. Head out into mountains and the problem mostly goes away. I do believe the local governments need to be held more accountable as some pueblos are extremely well maintained and others are full of litter and not maintained.

    Anyways, don’t view the island through the mainland lens and you’ll flourish there! There are many beautiful and kind people that live on the island that care deeply about its future.

    Saludos

    • Hi David,
      Thanks for your kind words. We love the people here as well! There is nowhere quite like Puerto Rico. We lived in the mountains for 4 months and no doubt, it was cleaner there than near the beach. And you’re absolutely right, it all depends on the city too. Some are much cleaner than others. We are trying to figure out how to clean up ours 🙂
      Joanna-

  3. Mistreatment of animals, garbage, and drivers were why we had to leave. We didn’t want to but it was just to much to take. There was just so much garbage you couldn’t even try to pick it up. If you did you would never leave the area around your car.

    Here in ABQ I can hike 10 miles and only pick up a single can or bottle and maybe a candy wrapper.

  4. Where did you get that first picture!? That’s horrible! Hopefully that isn’t in Luquillo!

  5. Don’t forget to hold the trash-makers responsible too. For example, KAB (Keep America Beautiful) was funded and organized by the tobacco and cola industries to prevent biodegradable cigarette butts from being required and to keep bottle laws from passing (required deposits which would encourage people to pick up glass for the money back). Because aluminum has value, you will rarely see an aluminum can as these do get picked up.

    Another way to help keep trash from ending up at the beach (or elsewhere) is to simply ban single use things like plastic bags as is the case in Rincón. The huge corporations have played a little game of slight of hand where they want you to look at the people (who throughout most of history could throw out anything without a worry because everything made in nature is automatically biodegradable -banana peels, egg shells, etc) instead of the companies that make the trash that sticks around for years or decades or centuries! Yes, everyone should be involved, but there is a huge part of this equation that is missing if we don’t look at where it came from in the first place.

    • A very good point Cassie. The amount of packaging that ends up in trash today is unbelievable. When I grew up in Poland, everything was bought for that day, rarely did we buy anything packaged, so there wasn’t much non-biodegradable trash. Now the trend is to buy stuff for a whole week, so everything is prepackaged.
      I am not sure that we can tackle the large companies but we can certainly do our part in cleaning up and recycling in our areas. Ideally, the manufacturers would stop making the additional packaging that creates the problem but I doubt very much that this will happen. This stuff ends up in the dumpsters but I’d rather see it in the trash than on the beaches.

      You’re right, we mostly see plastic and glass bottles because much of the aluminum cans get picked up for recycling – it’s worth money. But we see things like dirty diapers, plastic toys, nets, broken chairs, plastic bags, even shoes and many, many, many plastic forks, spoons, Sangria pouches, etc.. It all just sucks.
      Joanna-

  6. Having traveled to Jamaica many times, PR has trash but we found it not as bad as Jamaica. In Rincon there is a volunteer group that regularly cleans up the beaches which is fantastic. This International Cleanup Day is great and I definitely think the govt. of PR should promote this regularly to bring awareness to people especially the youngsters to get them on the right path. You guys are awesome in that you are volunteering your time to help Luquillo!

    • Thanks Barbara,
      Yeah, Rincón is a lot more organized than Luquillo. We are trying to do some of the same things they do, to clean up our beaches and town. I agree Jamaica is pretty bad too. But the worst we’ve ever seen were the beaches on Isla Colon in Panama. I wanted to cry and Tim was twitching, they were so covered with trash.
      Joanna-