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At Pacific beach, an endless flow of trash

From the print edition

PLAYA GUACALILLO, Puntarenas – In the middle of Costa Rica’s Central Valley flows the Río Virilla. It carries the worst of the city’s filth and the sewage toward the ocean. On its journey, the Virilla joins several other tributaries in forming Río Tarcoles, the most polluted river in Costa Rica. 

The 2,000-square-kilometer Tárcoles River system empties its contents into the Pacific Ocean, and often, all that garbage finds its way back to Costa Rica. 

At Playa Guacalillo, a beach near the mouth of the Tarcoles, Nydía Rodríguez picks up pieces of trash: soda bottles caked in mud, stinking plastic bags and chunks of Styrofoam. Other items, such as washing machines and refrigerators, also appear. Trash collectors won’t take many of the large appliances, so people discard them into the country’s rivers. The waters consume the appliances, spitting them out into Costa Rica’s oceans and onto the shorelines. 

“Costa Rica is known as a conservationist, ecologically friendly country,” Rodríguez says. “But it has another side that’s very dirty.”

Rodríguez leads the 12-year-old Terra Nostra Association, the Costa Rican branch of Ocean Conservancy. The latter organization arranges beach cleanups in some 100 countries each year. The conservancy doesn’t only collect garbage, it also analyzes the contents of what volunteers amass to determine the source of the muck. 

Intel 2

The Intel Volunteers.

Alberto Font

For the Río Tárcoles, the problem starts in the capital. Thirty years ago in San José, wastefulness and a lack of education about the consequences of littering resulted in tons of trash being dumped in the Virilla River and other bodies of water around the capital.

Repulsive habits formed as an explosion of plastic products entered the market in the 1980s, Rodríguez says. She filmed a TV show in the ’80s that showed municipal garbage collectors dumping waste into the rivers instead of landfills.  

Laws and regulations have improved since then, but not enough, she says. Recycling programs remain frail, with meager participation. Many recyclable materials wind up somewhere else, such as the beaches on the Pacific coast.

Beneath palm trees and buried in soft sands, trash forms a patchwork across the shoreline. For the last four years, Terra Nostra visited Playa Guacalillo to hold cleanups. In 25 trips to the beach, 30,000 people have participated in the program, removing tons of trash.

Last weekend, approximately 800 volunteers from multinational companies Intel and Coca-Cola and financial institutions BAC Credomatic, Coopenae and Coopemep took part in the cleanup. Volunteers joined municipal employees, local residents and Terra Nostra workers in cleansing the flecks of trash that swathe the beach. 

The beach has not been a popular spot with tourists for decades, but after two days of picking up trash, the area looks presentable. Rodríguez says when the cleanups started in 2008, workers struggled to walk “because you would fall in all the waste.”

Volunteer efforts cover four of Playa Guacalillo’s seven kilometers. The other three kilometers remains as dirty as ever, Rodríguez says.

The main purpose of the Terra Nostra Association is as much about combating ignorance as it is about purging trash from a little-used beach. The program forces participants to take a closer look at manmade damage done to Costa Rica’s environment. 

Last Sunday, 50 volunteers from Intel took part in the program. They slipped on teal gloves, grabbed large plastic bags and scooped up chunks of debris. 

“People really need to understand that when they’re riding [in] a bus or car, throwing garbage out of the window is such a bad idea,” says Patricia Chico, Intel’s community engagement manager.

Intel, the largest exporter in the country, employs 2,800 Costa Ricans. Chico says about six of 10 Intel employees volunteer for the community service programs.

A couple of the companies’ workers, wearing blue shirts, note some of the stranger items they find on the beach: “Syringes,” says one volunteer. Another repeats the name “Ken,” referring to the male counterpart of the iconic Barbie doll.

Chico says she can’t believe the number of soles of shoes she sees: “That’s kind of weird.” 

A table set up on the beach provides hand sanitizer, bottles of water and succulent chunks of watermelon to volunteers. Shifts on the beach last about four hours.

Afterward, a new organization called Coopered, or Waste Collectors of the Pacific Cooperative, sorts refuse from the recyclable and reusable materials. The cooperative salvages and sells the recyclable materials for profit. The midday sun beats on the workers and a stench wells up from the baking trash. After arriving around 8 a.m. that morning, most of the volunteers clear out by noon.  

During the first week of October, the Terra Nostra Association will hold a press conference with the Environment Ministry announcing the results of the cleanup. 

Rodríguez says she hopes the efforts demonstrate how easily this could be avoided if residents threw away or recycled their trash instead of littering.  

A program like this shows people where all their litter ends up, and also reminds people about what used to exist at Playa Guacalillo before all the junk arrived, says Rodríguez, adding, “This beach was divine when it was clean.”

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