Environmental Threats
and Challenges

Garbage on Placencia BeachDuring the summer, Peninsula residents can wake up to find their beaches covered with trash that has washed in during the night, most of it plastic and almost none of it from Belize.

So, who are the culprits?  Could be anybody - cruise ships, neighboring countries, trash from the US or Canada that has been shipped off to another country for disposal, but somehow ended up in the ocean.

In September 2009, 400,000 volunteers worldwide collected 11.4 million items of marine trash from beaches and oceans, including cigarette butts, plastic bags, and food wrappers and containers. In the Philippines alone, 11,077 diapers were picked up and 19,504 fishing nets were recovered in Britain.”

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an area covering 500 nautical miles and contains up to 100 million tons of trash. In it are plastic bottles, kayaks, footballs, bottle caps, toys, old fishing nets and plastic - lots and lots and lots of plastic.

And all this garbage is killing fish, marine animals and birds. One-third of all albatros babies die when their parents mistakenly feed them bits of plastic garbage they find in the ocean.

Lost or discarded fishing nets have become silent killers all over the high seas. These nets drift around the oceans ensnaring sea turtles, dolphins, sharks, fish, sea birds, and other marine life.

Sea turtles starve to death after eating plastic soda rings, "baggies," styrofoam particles and plastic pellets that they mistake for real food, but which clogs their intestines preventing them from eating.

Seals play with fragments of plastic netting or packing straps, catching their necks in the webbing, often making them unable to move and killing them through starvation, exhaustion or infection caused by wounds from the plastic netting or packing straps.

Both seals and whales get caught in translucent nets and drown. In the fall of 1982, a humpback whale tangled in 50 to 100 feet of net washed up on a Cape Cod beach. It was starving and its ribs were showing. It died within a couple of hours.

According to Charles Moore, marine biologist and author of "Trashed", an article published in Natural History v.112, n.9, Nov 2003, some plastics have the ability to absorb and concentrate poisonous chemicals such as DDT and PCBs - so that the concentrations in the plastic are possibly a million times stronger than the amounts floating in the water.

Some marine animals such as jellyfish swallow this plastic. The jellyfish are in turn eaten by fish, which are eaten by humans, sometimes ending up on our own dinner plates.

Placencia Peninsula DumpAnd then there's the garbage produced by tourism in coastal communities in the third world. These communities often have no effective garbage disposal systems and certainly no hazardous waste disposal sites, instead relying on dumps that can leach toxic substances into the ground water.  (Picture of the Peninsula's dump shown above.)

Residents of the Peninsula typically produce 2-2.5 pounds of garbage per day, while a tourist produces almost 5 pounds per day. 

Until plastics packaging became so prevalent, garbage was not much of a problem on the Peninsula because most everything decomposed or was reused - rum bottles for home-made coconut oil, mayonnaise and peanut butter jars reused for home-made guava jelly.  Now the rum bottles, peanut butter jars and many other jars are themselves made of plastic - even bottles of extra-virgin olive oil.

Like everywhere else in the world, plastic garbage bags are also now a major problem on the Peninsula.  Didn't used to be, because the grocery stores and the Fishing Co-op charged 25 cents per bag.  Some grocery stores, such as Wallen's in Placencia, are trying to help by promoting the use of green bags.

The national Belize Tourism Industry Association is also trying to help the garbage problem by lobbying the national Belize government to eliminate the tax on imported containers that dissolve in the environment and making styrofoam products much more expensive.

However, the national government is not particularly cooperative, having just introduced legislation imposing a 25 cent deposit on canned and bottled beverages, but refusing to include plastic bottles.

Peninsula Citizens for Sustainable Development

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Placencia, Belize