PUERTO VIEJO, Limón – The beaches here on the southern Caribbean coast are known for their light sand and blue waters.
They also happen to be some of the cleanest in the country.
While unruly garbage piles up in rank heaps in the cities or flows out into the oceans and rivers in coastal and rural areas, Puerto Viejo and environs are uncommonly clean. Wire-net receptacles are strategically placed at area beaches and in town, each filled with perfectly sorted aluminum cans and, importantly, no garbage.
This is due in large part to one of the best regarded and, by all accounts, most successful recycling programs in the country: ReciCaribe.
Founded in 1999, the nonprofit ReciCaribe provides one of the country’s most holistic recycling programs – including various aspects from pickup to education – to about 300 local clients, including some 100 businesses.
Ana Bryant, owner of local fixtureHotelMaritza, has colored recycling bins in each of her rooms, as well as a separating station in the middle of the common areas. The objective, she says, is to make recycling “a more conscious thing for the guests.” She estimates that four out of every five guests have no problem separating their trash and recycling what they can.
ReciCaribe recycles glass, aluminum and plastic numbers 1 (bottles), 2 (gallon milk jugs) and 5 (lawn chairs, toys), and recently expanded its coverage significantly to include plastic number 4 (plastic bags, thin films), scrap metals and, notably, Tetra Brik, out of which a large number of juice and milk boxes are made.
The voluntary participation is the remarkable component, and is what makes the program viable and even thriving, not just at the Maritza, but also in the community at large.
Clients make voluntary donations, usually in the amount of $10 a month, to participate in ReciCaribe pickup and other programs. Participating groups receive no financial incentive, nor does ReciCaribe, which has received funding from the Dutch and U.S. governments.
Only plastic number 1 pays for itself, as processers are able to break it down and sell it to China, where it is remade into other products such as clothes. Most of the other materials are a losing game. For example, it can cost up to ¢200,000 ($364) to transport one truckload of plastic number 2, 4 or 5; however, ReciCaribe might receive only ¢100,000 ($182) for selling back the sorted recyclables at a transfer station. The difference is subsidized by ReciCaribe.
None of this, though, fazes proponents or participants.
“The idea that recycling is expensive and people don’t want to bother with it is a myth,” says Rachel Thomas, the group’s president, who notes that most local businesses participate.
In a chronically underfunded municipality such as Talamanca, ReciCaribe’s role becomes all the more important, says Thomas, who has lived in Puerto Viejo for eight years. Residents cannot rely on the municipality’s coverage of basic services, and, in the past, have gone up to three weeks without garbage pickup.
“During those times, people love us,” she says.
ReciCaribe is not alone in its efforts. The organization often coordinates with a variety of groups and government agencies, including the Talamanca Ecotourism and Conservation Association (ATEC), the health and education ministries, Corredor Biológico Talamanca Caribe and the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry. ReciCaribe also was a founding member of Redcicla, a network of recycling agencies throughout the country through which ReciCaribe often shares its strategies with other groups.
ReciCaribe is eager to participate in a new landfill the municipality is looking to dig in the nearby town of Olivia, because “the life of the landfill will completely depend on how much of that waste can be recuperated or recycled,” Thomas says.
In addition to cooperation, innovation and education are key components in ReciCaribe’s strategy. The organization has set up workshops with school groups in the past, is now working with a cooperative to convert used vegetable oil into biodiesel for the ReciCaribe truck, and has another campaign to promote biodegradable, disposable kitchenware.
In a municipality that often doesn’t have the means, local groups and community members have taken an extraordinary responsibility for the cleanliness of their region.
“People’s appreciation of nature encourages more conservation of nature,” says Thomas, who estimates that 80 percent of trash on the beach is either recyclable or biodegradable.
Moreover, she says, “People are aware of the fact that if garbage isn’t recycled, it will end up in the ocean.” Thanks to everyone involved in ReciCaribe, not much does around Puerto Viejo.