Have you ever wondered what happens to the many pieces of plastic we contact in our daily lives? I wrote here recently on recycling, and the negative impact on others that littering can have. The best solution to wondering where plastics end up is to control their fate — by recycling and not littering. Trash left lying anywhere in the Adirondacks reflects negatively on the region and lessens the experience of both locals and visitors alike.
But there’s a bigger picture to consider as well, one that urges us to make those clean practices a part of daily life as much as possible no matter where we are. Most of us have heard about the giant islands of floating plastics in the world’s oceans, like the North Atlantic garbage patch. While it might be difficult to relate personally to something that few of us can see, there is a similar environmental issue in a place many North Country folks have visited on vacation: Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, home to Cancun and many other resorts.
Without physically traveling there, we can still see firsthand (using Google Maps, as described below) how nefarious and widespread pollution is, and how important it is to incorporate clean practices in our daily lives. Items as small as pens and prescription containers, and as large as five-gallon jugs and full-size barrels, litter the Yucatan shoreline for hundreds of miles. Most of the area in question consists of beautiful, sandy, undeveloped beaches identical to the commercialized ones favored by tourists. Seeing the extensive pollution there, rather than just reading about it, will make it — and the massive floating islands of trash — more believable, and perhaps inspire some folks not to pollute (we can dream, can’t we?). Knowing where their own plastics might end up is a good start.
Some of what you’ll see on the Yucatan shore is the result of flooding and damage by hurricanes and other storms, when items are washed out to sea, but that’s only part of the problem. Such an extensive, continuous line of plastic trash is partly due to littering on a small and large scale. It confirms that giving waste plastic a home rather than letting it find one of its own is a good idea.
The key to touring the Yucatan shoreline from your desktop is Google Maps. If you haven’t used it, you won’t regret learning how, which merely takes a little practice. The “Street View” feature has been expanded dramatically in recent years to include, among other things, many beaches and shorelines. By clicking forward, large step by large step, you can now “walk” most of Florida’s coastline.
Likewise, Google hired a camera operator to trek much of the Yucatan shore from Cancun south. Private resorts sometimes cause a break in what you can see, but the solution is to just probe farther south on the map until you can once again “land” on the shoreline. And remember that wherever you “stand,” you can always zoom in or out, and can rotate for a 360-degree view.
The natural scenery is at times fantastic. In many instances, you can “walk” through resorts and along beaches, so yes, brace yourselves — speedos and bikinis come with the territory. Mayan ruins are occasionally encountered, as well as wildlife. As you proceed, scenes change, but one feature — a sinuous line of plastics washed ashore — is nearly always present, except where beach operators have hired cleanup crews, sometimes with tractors and rakes, to clean things up daily. So much plastic debris strung along beautiful sandy shores for mile after mile is a stunning, disturbing, eye-opening sight. It comes partly from masses like this one filmed in the Caribbean last year north of Honduras.
Check out the shoreline if you’re so inclined. It really brings home the issues of ocean pollution that can seem remote to mountain folks, but in reality affect us all.
Photos: All the images are snapshots by the writer taken during a Google Maps walking tour of the Yucatan shoreline.