TORTUGUERO – Claudio Martínez smiled as a week’s worth of Coca-Cola and Ginger Ale bottles sifted through his fingers, reduced to fine shavings by a plastic- processing mill.
“One less load for the trash boat,” he said, smiling through a set of widely spaced teeth.
The plastic grinder is one of many new additions to the recently reborn Tortuguero recycling center,which sorts plastic, glass, cardboard and aluminum from the town’s trash.
“Over there is the trash we’ve already sorted through this week,” said Martínez on a tour of the plant late last month, just before the onslaught of the annual tourist season, which coincides with the arrival of green turtles on the beach, from July to October.
“It’s a small town but we make lots of trash.When the turtles get here, the tourists follow, and then comes the trash,” he said, pointing to a small mountain of well-sealed green bags in the corner.
“That’s just the beginning. We sort through all of it and take the recyclables out, then ship to recycling centers and the landfill in San José,” he said.
Next to the trash was proof of his hard work – thousands of aluminum cans – compressed into hay-bale-sized stacks, alongside stacks of cardboard.
The plant, which began operation last August and employs five people, ships an average of 24 metric tons of garbage and sorted recyclables every month out of town by water, including 2,000 kilograms of cardboard, 2,500 of plastic, 600 of aluminum and 2,000 of glass.
Located in the center of town and surrounded by a chain-link fence, the center is modest – but residents agree it’s a necessary first step in dealing with the town’s heaping trash problem.
Tortuguero, along the sultry northern Caribbean coast, is among Costa Rica’s most remote towns – accessible only by winding, unmarked jungle canals. Some 200 pastelcolored homes on rickety stilts occupy a narrow sliver of land between canal and ocean.
Despite the popularity of its national park and the region’s long-standing green image, trash has always been an uncomfortable eyesore for residents and visitors alike (TT Jan 28, 2005).
According to Daryl Loth, vice-president of the Tortuguero Guide’s Association, most of the community’s trash in recent years wound up on the beach, got burned, or was tossed in the neighborhood soccer field in the center of town – which had become an impromptu town dump.
“The kid’s playing soccer would have to play around the trash heaps,” explains Loth.
Local residents and guides, fed up with the situation and fearing negative effects on tourism and even turtles, donated start-up funds for the new recycling center – including cash for a new four-wheeler to be used for trash pick up, and the mill for grinding bottles.
Plant manager Enrique Obando, who also owns a gift shop in town, spearheaded the effort.
He explains that because none of the land in the town is titled, residents don’t pay taxes, so the municipality has refused to collect the trash as it does elsewhere in the country.
This gray area left the town a veritable wasteland in recent years.
Today, residents pay ¢2,500 (about $5) per month for the service, and local hotels, stores and restaurants pay more, depending on size of trash output.
The fee is charged together with the water bill – if you don’t pay for trash removal, your water supply is temporarily shut off, said Obando.
The Municipality of Guápiles, he said, supports the program, providing transportation along the canal for the trash, and two employees for the center – roughly 30% of the operating costs.
“The municipality won’t pay it all. But without their help, we would be in trouble,” Obando said.
Funds gained from selling the recyclables go toward operation and improvement costs.
A quick stroll through Tortuguero’s pedestrian boulevard, which winds along the canal, is proof enough that something’s working.
There is little trash alongside the road or beach, kids play in the soccer field without slipping on last night’s leftovers, and separation bins for collecting recyclables are scattered through town.
“It’s a thankless job. If the town is dirty, we hear about it from everyone. When it’s clean, no one says anything,” said Loth, who also manages the Marbella Bed and Breakfast in town.
“What I do know is, I’m not hearing about the trash problem from tourists anymore, so that’s a good thing,” he said.
Like any small community project, this one has is hardly free of controversy.
Loth explains that he and most others believe the recycling plant must be moved from its current location in the middle of town, alongside town shops and restaurants, to an out-of-sight location.
He also laments that the trash service is tied to water.
“If you don’t pay, your water supply is cut off,” he said. Though he said a small minority have protested, he pays regardless, because he believes it is a moral obligation to properly dispose of the trash.
Obando, who also administers the town water supply, insists the joint water and trash service is the only way to ensure the system works – and that people fund it.
Others point out that the plant is labor intensive, since workers sort the trash, not residents.
Obando said many community members, long accustomed to the convenience of the soccer-field dump, are resistant to change – and won’t sort trash themselves – yet.
“They’re starting to get the idea,” he said, adding that lessons in area schools will help reinforce the importance of recycling.
“Hopefully, as the kids learn, this will start to change,” Obando said.