SAN JUAN DE NICARAGUA – In a corner of the world where many consumer products have yet to arrive, local villagers need only to walk to the beach to see what they are missing.
On the black-sand Caribbean beaches in southeast Nicaragua, just north of the mouth of the Río San Juan, kilometers of plastic shampoo bottles, car parts, sandals, plastic dolls, empty liquor bottles and shards of scattered plastic have come to rest above the shoreline.
No one sunbathes here – there’s too much trash.
The beaches of San Juan de Nicaragua line the eastern border of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, some 4,500 kilometers of largely untouched jungles, rivers and lagoons. While about 2,000 residents live in the village of San Juan de Nicaragua and a small group of Rama Indians live a few hours north, along the Río Indio, they are not the polluters. Ocean currents bring trash here from all over the Caribbean.
“There is trash on these beaches for dozens of kilometers,” said Juan Luna, who lives in an elevated thatch-roof hut about 200 meters from the shore. “It makes me sad every time I go to the beach, so I almost never go. People throw away bottles, sandals, batteries, and all their plastic junk and never think about where it ends up. Maybe if they saw these beaches they would.”
The beaches of San Juan de Nicaragua are one example of the world’s ever-increasing trash problem. Discarded non-biodegradable items are pooled together in ocean currents and regurgitated back on shore.
On Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, an annual arts festival known as “Chunches del mar,” or “Things of the sea,” held near Playa Grande in the Nicoya Peninsula, turns beach trash into art. The festival, which has been held 10 times outside of the beach town of Montezuma, brings artists together to pluck trash from a polluted beach with similar conditions to San Juan de Nicaragua, although significantly smaller in size.
“What we are seeing is that trash thrown into the ocean and rivers that empty into the ocean is either winding up on beaches or in a current that carries it elsewhere,” said Nydia Rodríguez, executive director of Terra Nostra, a Costa Rican recycling organization that collected over 1,700 kilograms of beach trash from Playa Guacalillo in the province of Puntarenas in late February.
“This is a problem throughout Latin America and particularly in Central America. There is a lack of education, and a lack of interest about how to properly dispose of trash. Many of the businesses that provide these packaged goods never explain to consumers how to dispose of these products and show little concern for what happens to them after being used. Unfortunately, most of beach trash isn’t even trash, it’s mostly recyclable,” Rodríguez said.
Rodríguez listed several other beaches in Costa Rica where beach trash is prevalent, including Playa Cocos, a beach on Isla San Lucas, and a beach on the Caribbean coast near the mouth of the Río Pacuare.
“The more you research beach trash, the more locations you will find,” Rodríguez said.
The Ubiquity of International Beach Trash
One infamous collection of ocean trash, which is yet to even arrive on beaches across the world, is known as the Pacific Trash Vortex, or Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Within the last five years, the massive trash vortex, which travels in a circular swirl in the northern Pacific between the U.S. and Japan and Russia, is thought to be double the size of the U.S. state of Texas.
After visiting the vortex in 2006, Greenpeace International wrote:
“The trash vortex is an area the size of Texas in the North Pacific in which an estimated six kilos of plastic for every kilo of natural plankton, along with other slow degrading garbage, swirls slowly around like a clock, choked with dead fish, marine mammals, and birds who get snared. Some plastics in the gyre will not break down in the lifetimes of the grandchildren of the people who threw them away.”
The trash island is thought to have nearly doubled in size in the last five years.
Two years ago, Doug Woodring founded an environmental organization called Project Kaisei, which lists one of its primary objectives as finding a way to reduce the immense vortex.
“Our main focus is marine debris in the north Pacific gyre, which is an area northeast of Hawaii and west of California, about four or five days by boat,” Woodring said. “It’s probably the most remote eco-system on the planet… When people haven’t gone there, they haven’t realized this problem that’s crept on us. The currents that flow clockwise in that part of the ocean basically capture anything that floats.”
Woodring and his organization are trying to gather much of the accumulated plastic to recycle it or use it for fuel. In 2009, Project Kaisei was recognized by the United Nations Environment Program as a “Climate Hero” organization, and by Google as a “Google Earth Hero” for its work with video blogging and creating a tracking system.
Despite the accolades, Woodring feels that only promoting international awareness of the problem will result in change.
“It is a big problem and gets people attention, and that can help motivate change faster,” Woodring said. “The problem is we don’t know the damage this has been causing to ecosystem and marine life. There is plenty of evidence that everything from whales to jellyfish and all things between consume this mistaking it for food.”
In 2009, the environmental organization The Ocean Conservancy calculated that 400,000 volunteers recovered 6.8 million pounds of coastal trash across the planet.
Taking Out the Trash for Tourism
Over the next few years, the Nicaraguan government and the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (INTUR) plan to create a “Ruta de agua,” or “Water Route,” that begins in San Juan de Nicaragua and facilitates travel down the Río San Juan to Lake Managua. An airport in San Juan de Nicaragua, formerly known as Greytown, is being constructed to allow tourists to fly into what is a remote region.
And when the tourists come, it is likely they will want to see the beach.
“We are definitely going to have to create a plan to clean up the trash from the beaches [in San Juan de Nicaragua] and around the country,” said Lucy Valenti, president of the Nicaraguan National Tourism Chamber (Canatur). “It is a growing problem in Nicaragua and we have to organize to make sure that we are taking the appropriate steps to dispose of the trash. No tourists want to spend time on beaches filled with trash.”
Despite efforts by Nicaraguan government agencies to clean up beach trash, the problem extends far beyond this tiny strip of sand in an isolated corner of Central America. The problem seems to be that, as Rodríguez of Terra Nostra said, “When people can’t see it, they just don’t think about it.”
For a photo report on beach trash, see The Tico Times online at ticotimes.net.