The San Pedro Sun

Guest Editorial: Talkin’ Trash

By: Robert J. Hawkins
Hawkins is a retired newspaper and online journalist/editor and media relations specialist who blogs about his life in Belize, and sometimes writes freelance stories for global publications.

Mary Wells, a Houston real estate agent, and her family came to San Pedro recently in search of a second home. They brought a dozen trash sticks with them to donate to our First Friday Tres Cocos Trash Pickup group.
Ironically — and sadly — they chose to take a pass on Belize as their second home. It was, in Mary’s words, just too dirty. Trash everywhere.
As she recently wrote to me, “Your blog today [https://robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com] reminded me too clearly why I cannot move there. The trash and all its sources are beyond my accepting. If I could think that with efforts of locals, government, and people from other countries, it can be alleviated…not totally resolved … but slowed (so that people like you and Rose and your group can start the cleanup and your efforts will have some lasting effect), I may have been able to see the natural beauty again having a fair chance…. but I don’t think this will happen in my life time (20 years?).
“It was extremely distressing to me.”
I regret that Mary could not see how pristine the roadway north of the bridge looked this past Friday after our group of 20 wrapped up two hours of cleanup. Her trash sticks were especially handy with the high water beside the road, from recent rains.
The sticks are a welcome addition to our war on trash. (And we need more, dear readers, if you are planning to visit Ambergris Caye soon!)
Welcome too were the 10 unique trash barrels placed north of the bridge just this week by the town of San Pedro.
A bit of background on the new trash barrels: Residents living north of the Sir Barry Bowen Bridge banded together about six months ago to launch a monthly trash pickup along the newly paved road.
With the road came convenience, speed and trash. Lots of trash.
It was out of control. People driving or cycling north to and from work in the resorts would simply toss their refuse to the ground. Kids snacking after school dropped their cups and wrappers wherever they happened to be.
It isn’t just locals. There is tourist trash mixed in there too — especially empty plastic cups from the bars.
We meet on the first Friday of every month in front of the Paradise Theater at 9 a.m. for two hours of trash cleaning along the road and the beach — now reaching as far north as the new Truck Stop restaurant complex.
The absence of trash barrels made our labors somewhat discouraging, given the mounds of roadside trash we found every month.
Sue Blair, who was key in organizing the First Friday crew began working with Deputy Mayor Gary Greif to get barrels placed up north. With Gary’s encouragement, Sue also organized a design contest to give the barrels a unique neighborhood appeal. This design, “Trash in the can, toes in the sand” was conceived by local expat Juanece Messervy and replicated on the barrels by town employees.
This past Friday we swelled with pride to see the barrels stationed up and down the road. It really boosted morale.
We also distributed the dozen “trash pickup sticks” that were donated to the cause by our recent visitor to our island. Joining us this week were Miss Earth Belize 2015 Christine Marie Syme and Oceana representative Roxy Perez-Gentle (at least her third time!). We were also joined by the new owners of Feliz Sports bar, Denice Burke Thomas and her son Dustin Mincer, and the new Truck Stop restaurant complex developer, Ben Popik.
Coco Loco’s beach bar donates a case of water and Village Market donates ice. Coco Loco’s owner Carmen Arenal distributes water up and down the road to volunteers, while she gathers full bags of trash in her golf cart to deposit at a central pickup point — where the city trash truck picks them up!
Around 11 a.m., we end up at the Marbucks Coffee shop, which puts out iced coffee, cold water and fresh-baked cookies for us. Rose Alcantara (my wife!) brings out chilled eucalyptus-scented washcloths for everyone.
You can’t ask for a more refreshing finish!
You are encouraged to join us each First Friday if you are on Ambergris Caye — or start your own group, as has the Phoenix resort for the downtown beaches and residents and staff at Grand Caribe to the north of us.
This isn’t just about aesthetics. Trash is a health problem for the whole island. It is also an economic issue. More and more tourists are turned off by the growing presence of trash and sargassum all around the island. For those who travel north to resorts, their first impression outside of town is what they see north of the bridge and usually it isn’t all that pretty.
Step it up AC resorts! Are you even remotely aware of how ugly your properties look from the road? The fact is, the Caribbean Sea is no longer your front door — not with the paved road.
Every resort should be looking to create a more magical entrance way from the road, and stop treating it like the back of the house. Hide your broken machinery and garbage better. Pick up your own trash for a mile in each direction. Yes, the overlap with your neighbors will make for a very clean first impression for your guests!
A few more thoughts on un-trashing the island:
● Bowen & Bowen, do you realize that you are the single greatest source of roadside trash on Ambergris Caye? If Crystal water bottles and bags were properly disposed of, half the roadside trash would disappear. How about supporting or sponsoring the volunteer cleanup efforts? How about working with the Town Council to rid the island of trash? How about an anti-litter program aimed at our school children? How about an incentive program for people who collect plastic water bottles and bags? Make us your test case for the rest of the country and help solve the problem your fine products helped to create!
● The trash problem is too big for just volunteer groups. San Pedro needs to recruit a paid army from the ranks of the unemployed that can swoop into neighborhoods, lagoons and beaches and quickly clean them up — even the vacant lots and private properties that have become ad hoc dumps. Property owners and homeowners with chronically blighted lots can be given decent notice to clean their own space with town help or be handed a bill from the town for cleanup.
● Every storefront, cart and roadside BBQ that sells takeout food in San Pedro should have a trash can in front of their concession. School kids, especially, have no place to dump the bags and papers from their snacks. Look around our schools — the source of a lot of the trash is pretty obvious. And way too many Styrofoam dinner boxes end up on the sides of our roads.
● There is nothing that riles our volunteers up more than seeing a trash-filled lot with a for sale sign on it. Really? We’re going to clean up your dump so that you can sell it more quickly? This island is experiencing a boom in real estate agencies, if not real estate sales. Start with your own properties. Hire clean-up crews. What comes after “Location, location, location”? Right: Presentation, presentation, presentation.
● Roll out the barrels. The town council is on the right track in its campaign to add colorful trash barrels all around San Pedro. We need more!
● Are you driving a vehicle or riding a bicycle? Carry your own trash bag with you and use it. Don’t just toss your Styrofoam container or Belikin beer bottle out on the ground. Stash your trash and then … look for a barrel!
● Visual pollution. Roadside billboards are popping up all over the new road north of the bridge. Some locations make sense and some signs can be helpful but who is in charge here? Some of our prettiest views — and sharpest curves — are obstructed by ugly signage. Some thought needs to be put into regulating this signage — and maybe charging a fee that could help pay for island cleanup programs ….
● Sargassum — way beyond my pay grade — I feel the community’s pain. The onslaught of sargassum has been relentless for almost a year now. Whatever the solution, it needs to be island-wide because the smelly red seaweed is now deep into the lagoons on the west side of the island.
● Establish a liaison for all the missionary groups that come here looking to do God’s work. Nothing brings you closer to God than walking amongst his children with a trash bag and some gloves. It lifts their spirits and shows them a better way to live. And nothing is more God-loving and humbling than spending a day collecting trash in San Mateo, among the island’s poorest and proudest residents.
This island has given us all so much and right now she is hurting. It was just this past Friday that we picked up the trash along the news road and already in some places you would never know it.
That’s just the way it is. That isn’t the way it needs to be.
Hey, if you have any other suggestions on how the island can deal with its growing trash problem, post them in the comments section. I’ll pass them along to the right people.
If you are coming to San Pedro and want to bring us some trash pickup sticks to contribute to the cause, we can always use more!
If you have a cleanup project of your own going on on Ambergris Caye, let us know so we can show you some island love too!