Tulum's trash troubles: a paradise seeking reinvention

July 25, 2024
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Tulum's trash troubles: a paradise seeking reinvention

Tulum’s trash troubles: a paradise seeking reinvention

Explore Tulum's Transformation as it Aims to Overcome its Waste Problem. Discover the Riches of this Paradise on Earth Today!
Tulum's trash troubles: a paradise seeking reinvention

30 years ago, it was considered a refuge in the Riviera Maya for those seeking a vacation with less all-inclusive and more yoga and backpacking. However, the last bastion of Mexican hope seems to have lost the battle against the 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 that level of growth.

And what about the beaches? The same thing that the rest of the Caribbean has been suffering, as Bad Bunny aptly states in his song “El Apagón” about Puerto Rico: access is left in the hands of hotel chains, and local communities end up losing their sea, a phenomenon known by some specialists as “touristic extractivism”. And the more tourism, the more businesses, the more consumption, and hence… more waste.

Touristic waste

Tulum's trash troubles: a paradise seeking reinvention
Tourist garbage collected on the beaches of Tulum.
Photo: Agustina Grasso.

Two million tourists arrive in Tulum every year, generating 120,570 tons of waste annually, according to the Secretary of Ecology and Environment (SEMA). Local legislation establishes that all large and medium generators in the hotel zone must hire a company to manage their waste.

Paula Romalde Cohen, a consultant for Sustainable Real Estate and a resident of La Veleta in Tulum, a neighborhood known for its boutique hotels, says that “60% of the waste in La Veleta is generated by condominiums.” From their consortium, Meet Point, they created a waste separation and composting system a few months ago, for which guests are charged a fee if they do not comply. “It is essential that we become aware and start making changes in our own communities.”

Lack of Public Policies

Tulum's trash troubles: a paradise seeking reinvention
Plastic containers recovered from the coast of Tulum.
Photo: Agustina Grasso.

In Mexico, by law, waste management is the responsibility of municipalities. In Tulum, however, the municipal recycling system has been criticized by citizens as inadequate. Although the use of bags and straws is prohibited by municipal ordinance, it is still common to see garbage in vacant lots, roadsides, and along routes.

In this context, residents demand more and better policies, and in response to this gap, the citizen initiative Tulum Sostenible was created, which carries out the Puntos Limpios program. This consists of a series of 12 recycling centers with containers where people can bring paper, tetrapacks, aluminum, metals, PET plastic, and HDPE plastic. “The module with its separating cells is located in a public area and is managed by a group of guardians composed of neighbors from the local neighborhoods. Materials can be deposited 24 hours a day,” says Karla Acevedo.

The coordinator of Puntos Limpios explains to América Futura that this system is designed to provide infrastructure that the municipality does not have. “We have created a program with various pillars: education, infrastructure, and citizen participation. Everything is a citizen-led initiative, and it is important to highlight this, as it is a demonstration of what we can achieve with commitment. There are modules just a few blocks away, so there are no excuses for people to say that they throw everything mixed together,” she says.

According to the General Directorate of Sustainable Urban Territorial Development and the Environmental Sustainability Directorate of the Municipality of Tulum, there are some programs such as Reciclatón, where on the last Friday of each month in six collection points in the center of Tulum, recyclable waste is collected. There is also the La Ruta program, focused on recyclables from small businesses or “Adopta Vida,” for which recyclables are exchanged for native plants.

However, for Karla Acevedo, “the lack of infrastructure prevents the application of waste separation regulations even when there is a legal framework and education on the subject.” She says that having all the resources is necessary for success in implementation.

From the private sector, the company Tulum Circula is dedicated to environmental management that promotes actions for the recovery and proper management of waste and beach cleaning.

Sea of plastics

Tulum's trash troubles: a paradise seeking reinvention
Alejandro Durán poses for a portrait next to piles of garbage collected from the beaches of Tulum.
Photo: Agustina Grasso.

In Tulum, beyond the hotel zone, is 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 where there are no hotels or tourism. A virgin area flooded by a sea of plastics to the horizon. Sand full of shoes, bottles, more shoes, light bulbs, more bottles. Objects brought by the sea and left on its shores.

Environmentalists demand that a solution be sought to the problem as in other countries, where nets are placed that capture plastics from the sea before they reach the coasts and affect marine ecosystems. However, there is no response.

A few minutes away, the landscape changes. There is garbage organized by colors, like a work of art. Red, blue, green, yellow. A kind of giant model made from waste. This is an itinerant garbage museum, known as Washedupproject.

Alejandro Durán, a Mexican environmental artist and photographer, is the director of the ephemeral museum. He himself seeks to raise awareness with art about the problem of garbage: he documented waste from 58 countries on six continents that reaches the coasts of Sian Ka’an.

“This is butter from Haiti. This bottle is from Jamaica. Here it says Dominican, so here you have the international garbage route. There are no borders, there are no limits to garbage,” he explains to América Futura, while he sifts through all the containers he has separated and that can be seen in his museum until the end of the first week of June.

There’s the visible trash, but also the one that is not seen. Eco Caribe organization denounces that waste often ends up in cenotes, the underground aquifers that abound in the Yucatan Peninsula. A study by the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH) reported contaminants in the groundwater of the Riviera Maya, ranging from residues of pharmaceutical and cosmetic products to pesticides and other chemicals.

The case of Tulum is yet another example of how humanity destroys everything in its path. This time, it’s about how it can ruin the typical Caribbean postcard. In addition to white sand and palm trees, there’s something that no longer is absent in the visitors’ photos: trash. Garbage is everywhere, from the natural reserve and the city to the beaches. Tourist trash, local trash, international trash. “There are no borders, nor limits for trash,” Durán concludes.

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