XCALAK - TALKING TRASH
When you arrive in Xcalak, the first thing you notice is the water. It’s breathtaking. And with the reef just a couple hundred yards from the shore, the variety of colors is spectacular.
And now for the spoiler. The second thing you notice? Trash. It’s everywhere. Beaches are lined with it—garbage has infiltrated everything. The mangroves that hug the coast are huge trash traps of bottles, netting, and containers of all sorts. Where does it all come from? How did it get here? The people of Xcalak aren’t messy or dirty people. The streets of the town are immaculate, and their homes are well kept.
One day, as we took a walk along the beach near the lodge, we began to pick up a few pieces of trash. We quickly realized, however, that it would be an almost impossible task to make even the smallest dent. First, there was just so much of it. Every ten feet would probably require multiple trash bags to hold it all. Second, it was not all just sitting on the surface. Much of it was half buried in sand, pushed back into the mangrove to where it would require getting down on all fours and doing a belly crawl to extricate. And third, a lot of it was big. There were parts of boats, appliances, and wreckage that would be difficult to remove.
Toby (an Xcalak native, restaurant owner, Xflats lodge manager, and unofficial mayor of the town) tells us there has always been trash. However, the nature of the trash has changed quite a bit in recent years. Years ago, the trash was decent: glass fishing buoys, boxes of toys, food, coffee. One time, a lumber ship must have met its fate offshore, because tons of wood washed up: 2x4s, 4x4s, plywood—everything you need to build a house. Toby says that many of the houses in town were built from wood from that ship. But in recent years, the nature of the trash has changed. Now it’s just garbage.
The locals have theories about where the trash comes from. Some believe it’s from cruise ships that dump their trash so that they don’t have to pay to have it properly disposed of. It sounds plausible given the environmental atrocities we’ve seen from the cruise industry.
Another theory is that South American countries are dumping their garbage offshore. Their landfills are getting full or too expensive to maintain, and so they load barges and dump them at sea. It may sound implausible, but it is exactly what New York and New Jersey were doing in the 1980s. It was only when medical waste like hypodermic needles started washing ashore that the practice stopped.
So why has this little town at the southern tip of the Yucatan become the recipient of so much trash? It’s likely due to ocean currents. If you look on a map of ocean currents, you see that there are prevailing currents that move south to north, from South America, and then make a right turn at Cuba. The place where the current turns is Xcalak. It’s likely that as it turns, it offloads much of the trash that it’s carrying.
We believe that ocean trash is Xcalak’s biggest environmental challenge. It’s unsightly and unhealthy. Xcalak relies on fishing, diving and similar tourism for the bulk of its revenue. Trash-littered beaches also deter tourists and hurt the economy.
We want to help. We weren’t sure exactly what we could do, but we had a few ideas. One was to first get all of the existing trash cleaned up. To do so, we’d need to organize a massive clean-up effort. The other is to stop the trash from coming. In order to do that, we’d need to do some investigation. Is it coming from cruise ships? If so, how can we get proof. If we get proof, then who do we take it to? Do we confront the cruise ship companies? Do we appeal to the governments of the ports they’re using? If not the cruise ships, maybe it’s governments dumping garbage. Venezuela would be a good place to start. It’s due south and at the beginning of the current heading north. How can we know for sure? Once we do, how can we use this information to get the dumping stopped?
This problem may seem unsolvable. How can a small sunglasses company find the time and resources to devote to helping Xcalak combat trash? The simple answer is that we can’t—at least not by ourselves. It will take a lot of people to solve this and other problems. What we can do, however, is identify the problems, tell the stories, and mobilize people who will get involved and see it through.
After our expedition, we went to work to help Xcalak get a handle on the trash problem. We took out our calculators and Google Earth maps and ran the numbers. We found that there are about 12,000 meters of beach in Xcalak. Based on our knowledge of the beaches there and some discussions with the locals, we concluded that one person could clean about 20 meters of beach in one day. If 10 people were employed, then they could clean about 4,000 meters per month. That means that it would take 3-4 months to clean all of the beach in Xcalak. Labor is fairly inexpensive there, about $10 per day. To employ 10 people for four months at $10 per day would cost about $12,000 in labor. There would also be a cost for hauling the trash off to a recycling center. We estimated this at about $3,000. So, our total cost would be $15,000.
Next, we had to figure out how to fund it. One way to fund the clean would be for Bajío to write a check. And while that approach would be efficient, it wouldn’t raise awareness for the cause or pull others in to help. So, we came up with another idea. We would create a t-shirt and a hat, adorned with the Xcalak rooster and sell them to raise money for the cause. That way, we’d get the message out about the problem of ocean trash and give people a chance to get involved in a simple way. If we could sell a hat or t-shirt for $30, cover our costs of about $20, then we’d have about $10 to pay the workers. That would create a self-funding program that could go on indefinitely. In order to raise $15,000, we’d have to sell 1,500 hats and shirts. For a small company like ours, that’s a lot of hats and shirts, but in the end, it’s doable.