There is a dirty little secret that Caribbean beach front resorts along the Yucatan coast, also known as the Maya Riviera, keep from their guests.
I mean dirty in a literal sense. As in trash. Garbage.
The pristine sandy white beaches set against the turquoise sea are an illusion.
Without the daily efforts by resort workers to clear the plastic debris that continually washes ashore, the beaches of Cancun, Playa de Carman and Tulum would look just like the picture above.
I took that photo in the Sian Ka'an biosphere south of Tulum.
It is a magical place where jaguars still roam the jungle and you can walk for miles along the beach without seeing anyone.
The world's second largest barrier reef stretches for 1,000 kilometers just off the shore. It is home to 65 species of coral and 500 species of fish.
The setting would be perfect except for the ribbon of plastic that mars the coastline.
I walked a short stretch and found water bottles, motor oil containers, paint cans, shoes, toys, Coke bottles, cups, and bowls from Jamaica, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Honduras, Venezuela, Columbia and the Dominican Republic.
This conveyor belt of trash floats along prevailing ocean currents until it washes up on the Mexican coast.
The Pan-American Centre for Sanitary Engineering and Environmental Sciences estimates 424,000 tons of waste are generated daily in Latin America and the Caribbean with less then 35 percent processed in regulated sanitary landfills.
Two-thirds of the trash ends up in open-air dumps or local rivers and streams where storms and floods send much of the garbage into the ocean and eventually to the Mexican coast.
Plastic is not bad. It has many useful qualities, the most prominent of which is its permanence. Plastic, although made primarily of organic materials, does not easily breakdown or decompose. It lasts.
The problem with plastic is its misuse.
We take items that have a short useful life and construct them from or store them in a material whose defining quality is its permanence.
Something that is used once or twice should not be sold in a container or manufactured out of a material that last for decades unless there is a mechanism to reuse the container or recycle the product that is explicitly part its commercial lifecycle.
For example, twenty five years ago in Mexico all soda was sold in glass bottles. Because the bottles were reused, there was an economic incentive on the part of consumers, manufacturers and distributers to make sure the bottles were returned so they indeed could be reused. There was an elegant lifecycle to the product as trucks that delivered the soda to stores would also pick up cases of empty soda bottles.
To increase profit, soda manufacturers and distributors broke the chain. By switching to plastic bottles, they stopped taking responsibility for the complete lifecycle of their products.
While some of the plastic bottles are recycled, most are not, particularly in the developing world, and the impetus to recycle lies with the consumer whereas the end-life of a product and its packaging should be the responsibility of the manufacturer.
What can we do as consumers to encourage change in corporate behavior?
Strive to purchase from businesses who take ownership for the complete life cycles of their products.
For example, I wear Alden brand shoes ‒ all of which I have bought used off eBay. When the shoes get worn, I send them back to Alden and they restore them for me.
Unfortunately, most business don't take ownership for the complete lifecycle of their products.
Consequently, we should not purchase items from the most egregious offenders.
My son Bret at age 16 stopped drinking bottled water and Coke and Pepsi products when he learned of the environmental damage inflicted. It's been over two years, and I have yet to see him break his resolve on this issue.
The collective action of individuals, each of whom makes purchase decisions based on their personal ethics, can have a profound impact on the behavior of companies.
When there is no choice but to purchase from a company that has abdicated its responsibility for the complete lifecycle of its product, then we have to complete the chain ourselves by reusing, restoring and recycling.
Finally, we should strive for the golden mean when purchasing items as I discuss in this essay on Supreme Objects. This means purchasing less, purchasing more conscientiously and when possible purchasing items that are used.
While staying in the Sian Ka'an, I met a restaurant owner from Chicago. He was visibly upset by the garbage along the beach and said it was ruining his vacation.
To cope, he didn't leave the resort where the beach was kept clean and tried to pretend the garbage just to the north and south of the resort wasn't there.
"I look straight ahead as if I'm wearing blinders," he said.
More importantly, when he gets back to Chicago he will take the blinders off and take action by making sure none of the supplies he uses in his restaurant are packaged in plastic.
Like this restaurant owner, we need to remove the blinders and be more conscientious consumers.
-J.D. Stein | January 2014