SUCCESS STORY: A Mexican village cleans up the plastic tide

Posted: 25 August 2009

Globally, one billion marine animals and birds die every year from eating discarded plastics. And, according to Mexican Environment Minister Jose Luis Luege, Mexico has one of the lowest garbage recycling rates in the world. Now, one seaside town has shown that local communities can take action to turn the tide of plastic waste and help the turtles to survive.

The sign read in Spanish, 'We used 2,000 plastic bottles to make the turtle, which is less than .001% of the number of plastic bottles we use in North America every five minutes.' It was a small but powerful companion to the oversized green sea turtle that lay lifeless on the grey stone of the festival plaza.

Students promoting recycling in Mexico
 
Students promoting recycling in Puerto San Carlos, Mexico.

 In August of 2008, over 10,000 people came from all over Mexico as well as the United States to participate in the seventh annual Sea Turtle Festival, created in 2001 to promote responsible fishing and turtle conservation in the town of Puerto San Carlos. Amidst the festive buzz of music, games, face painting, and fried dough, the plastic turtle captured the attention of the crowd. In the following days, the turtle would give birth to a fledgling recycling programme that, one year later, has begun to alter the physical and cultural landscape of this small Mexican fishing village.

Puerto San Carlos is located on the southwestern edge of Mexico's Baja Peninsula, accented by sandy beaches and purple-tinted mountains, which slope down into the cool, blue chop of Magdalena Bay. Litter blows about town, competing for attention with the beauty of the landscape. Most often, plastic is either burned at the local dump releasing chemicals into the air or ends up in the Bay where endangered sea turtles mistake it for sea grass, one of their favorite foods.

Mounting problem

'Going to the beach, or for a walk in town, it is inevitable that some form of plastic blows around you - sometimes hitting you in the face,' said Brady Wheatley, Student Affairs Manager at The School for Field Studies (SFS). In only one week leading up to the festival, Wheatley had garnered a crew of students to haul plastic bottles to the school's Coastal Studies Centre where she lashed them together with washed-up fishing nets into reptilian shape.

In a perfect union of symbolism and hard-hitting statistics, the display declared its message: high consumption rates in North America are polluting and destroying precious natural resources. Globally, one billion marine animals and birds die every year from eating discarded plastics.

Mexicans are among the world's biggest consumers of sugary drinks and bottled water, and only a fraction of the leftover plastic ends up recycled. Mexican Environment Minister Jose Luis Luege once told reporters, 'We have one of the lowest garbage recycling rates in the world, not even one per cent. The problem is we generate an enormous quantity of rubbish and we do not have a culture of recycling.'

Culture, as it turns out, would prove to be a dynamic concept in Puerto San Carlos. An SFS lecturer distributed a survey throughout town in early 2008 to determine the area's worst problems as recognized by its residents. Within a sample population of 250 people, 97 per cent agreed that garbage poses a threat to them and their families. The same survey showed that 89 per cent believe they have the power to make changes in their town.

Students and SFS staff encouraged festivalgoers to engage in a discussion about the degrading effects of pollution on the coastal ecosystem and its wild inhabitants such as the rare loggerhead turtle and the California grey whale. Most residents of Puerto San Carlos did not need to be convinced that pollution was a mounting problem of any consequence. For them, it was a terrible eyesore and a public health hazard at the very least.

Old warehouse

A chance encounter with one festivalgoer proved to be the missing link that would galvanize the community and fill the gap between recognition and action. A man at the festival approached the SFS booth and offered the name of a distributor willing to truck the turtle's plastic parts hundreds of miles away to a recycling plant in Tijuana. He also was willing to return week after week to buy the recyclables after they had been collected and purchased from local residents.

While another distributor was eventually hired, networking efforts were continually successful. To help the programme break even, the local delegado (town representative) agreed to provide an old, neglected warehouse, free of charge for three years, as a secure location to store the materials. SFS students also volunteered to take weekly shifts between their rigorous academic schedules to collect, weigh, and sort monstrous piles of aluminum, plastic, and cardboard.

By November of 2008 the programme was off to a steady start, fueling the students' interest and drawing in locals to participate. Progress was almost thwarted, however, by a likely act of mischief.

In the middle of the night, unidentified arsonists set the warehouse ablaze from the inside, melting the plastic bottles, charring the interior walls, and incinerating the roof. Students and local community members were quick to take up rakes and paint brushes. And in the bright, morning sun of late November, the volunteers painted in big green and blue words, 'Centro de Reciclaje: Compramos plástico, carton, papel y aluminio y colectamos vidrio' (Recycling Centre: We buy plastic, cardboard, paper and aluminum and we collect glass) on the freshly coated white walls of the warehouse.

They had spent the weekend sweeping up the charred remains of recyclables, demolishing areas of the interior walls that were unsafe, scrubbing off as much of the black soot as possible. Around the property, the long grass was chopped and raked, debris carted off by the truckloads, and before long, bars were installed on doors. The fire proved that community organization could rise from the ashes in Puerto San Carlos.

Recycling promise

By the summer of 2009, students had collected over 10,000 kg of recyclables. An additional 100 tons of trash had been gathered during beach cleanups where large, black garbage bags lined the shore; curiously unnatural yet impressive like small Easter Island statues.

 

Students help recycle for turtles
 
By the summer of 2009, students had collected over 10,000 kg of recyclables.

 The physical landscape of town had begun to outcompete with the litter, shifting attention back to its natural beauty. To parallel this achievement, a different sort of metamorphosis had taken place over course of the year. A new administration committee, formed by local community members and the school, had won a $7,000 grant to purchase compactors, bags, and more bins for a community outreach programme that had already been integrated into local secondary schools in early 2009. In less than a year, a project started at the hands of a few had grown and woven itself into the town's cultural fabric.

At the eighth annual Sea Turtle Festival in August of 2009, it was obvious that sustainable community ownership was beginning to poke its head out the shell of this grassroots movement. Local children visiting the SFS booth carefully wrote environmental promises on cloth flags to later be flown in town. Among drawings of turtles and dolphins swimming freely, each flag displayed the phrase in Spanish, 'I promise to recycle'.

This article was contributed by Dr. Robin Sears, Dean of The School for Field Studies. The School, founded in 1980, works around the world to educate students about the complexity of local development and conservation issues through field-based teaching, scientific research and training.