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.
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.
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.
I have heard many theories:
- It’s a cultural thing
- Everyone feels that it is not their job to clean up after themselves
- People think that if they leave the trash, they keep someone employed (presumably someone who is paid to clean the beach)
- It’s a macho thing
- 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).
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!