The Ongoing Battle with Trash in Tulum
30 years ago, it was considered a haven in the Riviera Maya for those seeking a vacation with less all-inclusive and more yoga and backpacking. But the last stronghold of Mexican hope seems to have lost the battle against large hotel chains. According to official data from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Inegi), less than 7,000 people lived there 20 years ago. Today, there are nearly 47,000 inhabitants in a city without sufficient infrastructure for this level of growth.
Tulum receives two million tourists per year, generating 120,570 tons of waste annually, according to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (SEMA). Local legislation establishes that all large and medium generators in the hotel zone must hire a waste management company.
Paula Romalde Cohen, an advisor at Sustainable Real Estate and a resident of La Veleta in Tulum, a neighborhood known for its boutique hotels, explains that “60% of the waste in La Veleta is generated by condominiums.” Through their consortium, Meet Point, they implemented a waste separation and composting system a few months ago. If their guests fail to comply, they are charged a fee. She emphasizes, “It is crucial that we become aware and initiate changes within our own communities.”
In Mexico, waste management is the responsibility of municipalities by law. In Tulum, however, the municipal recycling system, according to the local population, leaves much to be desired. Although the use of bags and straws is prohibited by municipal ordinance, it is very common to see vacant lots, roads, and roadside areas littered with trash.
In this context, residents demand more and better policies. In response to this void, the citizen initiative “Tulum Sostenible” was created, which carries out the “Puntos Limpios” (Clean Points) program. It consists of a series of 12 recycling centers with containers where people can bring paper, tetra packs, aluminum, metals, PET plastic, and HDPE plastic. Karla Acevedo states, “The module with its sorting cells is located in a public area and managed by a group of guardians consisting of residents from the neighborhoods. Materials can be deposited 24 hours a day.”
The coordinator of Clean Points explains that this system is designed to provide infrastructure that the municipality does not have. “We have implemented a program with various dimensions: education, infrastructure, and participation. It is all managed by the citizens, and it is important to highlight this because it shows what we can achieve through commitment. There are modules just a few blocks away so that there are no excuses for people to claim that everything is mixed.”
According to the General Directorate of Sustainable Urban Territorial Development and the Directorate of Environmental Sustainability of the Municipality of Tulum, there are some programs such as “Reciclatón,” where recyclable waste is collected on the last Friday of each month at six collection points in downtown Tulum. There is also the “La Ruta” program, focused on recyclables from small businesses, and the “Adopta Vida” program, where recyclables are exchanged for native plants. However, for Karla Acevedo, “the lack of infrastructure prevents the implementation of waste separation regulations, despite the existing legal framework and education in this regard.” She emphasizes that having all the necessary resources is crucial for successful implementation.
In the private sector, the company Tulum CIRCULA is dedicated to environmental management, promoting actions for waste recovery and proper management, as well as beach cleaning.
Beyond the hotel zone lies the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a 600,000-hectare area protected by UNESCO. However, not even the reserves are spared from pollution. Three and a half hours from its entrance, there is a beach where no one lives and there are no hotels or tourism. It is a pristine area flooded with a sea of plastics stretching to the horizon. The sand is filled with shoes, bottles, more shoes, light bulbs, more bottles. These objects are brought by the sea and left on its shores. Environmentalists demand that a solution be sought, as is done in other countries, where nets are placed to capture plastics from the sea before they reach the coasts and harm marine ecosystems. However, there is no response.