Trash talkin’ on Ambergris Caye in Belize

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Our First Friday crew, gathering for the traditional group shot just before we hit the street and beach in the Tres Cocos neighborhood of Ambergris Caye.
Our First Friday crew waves our new trash pick-up sticks as we gather for the traditional group shot around one of the new trash barrels, just before we hit the street and beach in the Tres Cocos neighborhood of Ambergris Caye on November 6, 2015.

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.IMG_1310

This gives you an idea of what we are up against. One of these trash piles is at the foot of the bridge in San Pedro. The other is about 20 yards away.
This gives you an idea of what we are up against. One of these trash piles is at the foot of the bridge in San Pedro. The other is about 20 yards away.

As she recently wrote to me, “Your blog today 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 clean up 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.”
Roxy Perez-Gentle of Oceana Belize joined us for her third time, at least!
Roxy Perez-Gentle of Oceana Belize joined us for her third time, at least!

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.

Miss Earth Belize 2015 Christine Symes helped us clean the road today, too.
Miss Earth Belize 2015 Christine Marie Syme helped us clean the road today, too.

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.

One of the new barrels at the foot of the Sir Barry Bowen Bridge in San Pedro, Belize.
One of the new barrels at the foot of the Sir Barry Bowen Bridge in San Pedro, Belize.

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!

Here are the details and some great photos on the most recent First Friday group. 

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.

San Pedro town crew distributes new trash barrels north of the bridge on Ambergris Caye. (Photo courtesy SP Town Council)
San Pedro town crew distributes new trash barrels north of the bridge on Ambergris Caye. (Photo courtesy San Pedro Town Council)

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!

At the end of the First Friday cleanup, everyone gathers at Marbucks for ice coffee and fresh-baked cookies. Great way to end a dirty day.
At the end of the First Friday cleanup, everyone gathers at Marbucks for ice coffee and fresh-baked cookies. Great way to end a dirty day. (Photo courtesy of Sue Blair.)

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 new 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!


25 thoughts on “Trash talkin’ on Ambergris Caye in Belize

    Michael Capps said:
    November 10, 2015 at 2:50 pm

    Would Bowen & Bowen be open to putting a deposit on their water & beer bottles? This may open the door to encourage some to collect & return them for a little $$. In Mexico City there was a $.10 per bottle deposit you paid when you purchased a case of beer. Your $2.40 was given back when you returned a case of empties.


      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      November 10, 2015 at 3:43 pm

      Michael, There is a deposit on glass Belikin beer and soft drink bottles. You have to drop off the bottles at one depot and then drive south to a second depot to collect — and you must collect the same day or your script is voided. Might be worth re-thinking that policy. A young entrepreneur could set up a secondary collection point and pay out for bottles, slightly less than B&B — but convenient.

      A little something on plastic bottles would really be helpful.


    Carmen said:
    November 10, 2015 at 3:22 pm

    Great article Bob! Here are my suggestions:

    1. I don’t even know if there are littering laws, but if there are maybe some signs indicating the fine(s) involved in littering. How about the city hires a sanitation enforcement officer whose job it is to fine people, businesses and homes for litter violations. I am sure that the fines would pay for his/her job. What about giving the offenders the option to pay a fine or do a certain amount of community cleanup work?

    2. In addition to fines what about identifying land owners who are not cleaning their lots/land? The Town Council could publish a list of owners in the newspaper along with photos of the trash. If it includes property for sale, include the real estate company representing the trashy property.

    3. We also need to get on the air waves either on the radio or tv and spread the word, especially the financial impact to residents of the island should the trash continue to pile up (Trash piles up = less tourism = less jobs/money for everyone). Pride shouldn’t only be shown with wearing blue and red, or the Belizean flag. You cannot be proud of your country/island/neighborhood if you are tossing trash on the ground or watching others do so and doing nothing.

    4. How about Town Council ask construction companies to donate use of their equipment to remove the sargassum and trash from the beaches? Maybe an exchange of services for tax breaks or other incentives can be created?

    5. How about Town Council lead a coalition of locals to help with trash pick up? It’s important to see more locals involved. Locals watching expats and tourists pick up garbage may not carry the same weight but seeing your elected officials leading teams of Belizeans could really make an impact.

    6. How about asking if the police can come up with a system to allow non-violent jailed men/women who will most likely only end up paying a fine – have them be able to waive jail and/or fine in exchange for x number of community hours of service picking up trash?

    7. The streets of San Pedro are not the cleanest. Maybe it’s time to spend $$ on beautification projects and long term employees hired to keep the place beautiful. I know the city is sending out sanitation bills to (some) business at $600 per year. Maybe it’s time they hit up each and every business and home, not just bars and restaurants? That could easily pay for projects and more employees. It’s time to clean up the streets and get rid of the unpermitted shoddy construction that we pass along every street, as do tourists or would be investors.

    8. The sanitation workers have a way of losing lots of trash when they pick up trash. In other words, sometimes when trash is picked up at a neat and tidy trash bin/area, the workers leave a horrible mess by not making sure all the trash ends up in the truck. They need either training or supervision.


    tacogirl said:
    November 10, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    Great post Robert. Keep up the great work to everyone doing island clean ups.

    I have 8 years worth of garbage pictures from all over the island if you ever need stock pictures to help your cause.

    We reall need trash education in schools. A girl once told me trash does not matter when I reminder her to clean up the lid and straw after she and her friend finished playing with the cup on the beach 😦


      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      November 10, 2015 at 3:47 pm

      Thanks Laurie! Maybe a retrospective on island trash at the House of Culture????


    Susan W. said:
    November 10, 2015 at 3:47 pm

    How long did it take the US to get it’s act together on trash? AND STILL we have litter. I just don’t understand why anyone anywhere would want there land trashed! It just boggles my mind. Maybe education is the key, maybe paying $1.00 per pound of garbage turned in at the reclamation center would work. Something has to give or this Island will just be know as Isle of TRASH.


      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      November 10, 2015 at 4:08 pm

      It took an iconic image of an elder American Indian gazing out over a trash littered landscape, with a tear in his eye, to galvanize people in the U.S. — that and huge fines for throwing stuff out the car window.

      Sure, people still do it, but so much less than in the 1950′ and 1960’s.

      Yes education — and maybe a very inspirational reggae/rap song?


        Susan W. said:
        November 11, 2015 at 9:05 am

        I like that idea! Now to find an inspirational reggae composer…


      SPmQQse said:
      November 10, 2015 at 5:37 pm

      a list , great in size only.
      carmen ,what else can you find to fine people over…”how about….bringing too much USA to the table”?
      #7- wake up…carmen…town board housing dept. gives permits to anyone who pays for it… even the co’s that build crap….like was the case with that ”tres cocos condos & condominiums”…on the lagoon-side.


        teresacoats1998 said:
        November 10, 2015 at 10:43 pm

        How rude of you. Where are YOUR solutions to this immense problem? You are not contributing positively to the coversation by rudely criticizing someone else’s thoughtful list of real solutions. Some ideas might not work, but some will. It will take a multi-pronged approach and involved everyone: locals, tourists, expats, real estate companies, business owners, schools, and local government. Simply saying “don’t litter” is not working. There must be some rewards to deter it and some real consequences that put pressure on violators to change deeply-ingrained behavior. You can flippantly point out irrelevant arguments, or you can put your money where your mouth is and help with a solution.


      SPmQQse said:
      November 10, 2015 at 5:51 pm

      susan….thats a trick ques.—-right…?
      the U.S. contributed 40,000 to 110,000 metric tons per year, and ranked 20th.
      [ ]


        Susan W. said:
        November 10, 2015 at 10:26 pm

        Well SPmQQse what is your idea? 🙂


        SPmQQse said:
        November 11, 2015 at 12:06 am

        teresa and susan…..i’ve seen the committees and groups..etc… do ”their part”..for over 25 yrs…they come and they go….trash barrels have come and gone… have the people who lobby for them.
        as for the shoreline mess….
        hell years ago i suggested to town board that, simple mechanical/hydraulic ingenuity to build a machine that acquires it all..compacts and stacks it, ready for sale, as natural fertilizer….would be only too easy….town board didnt see any merit in that idea.

        the list goes on and on of the great ‘improvement” ideas/opportunities that were turned down b/c of the lack of forethought of the officials who with obviously,no experience beyond this island…with no corporate know-how….and with little formal education….were voted into power to run this multi-million dollar island tourism business.
        some times it seems like it’s the keystone-cops in san pedro’s town board office.

        i’m not so likely to be, hands on , involved, in what i see as the futility processes these days….
        there are so many USA style rules and regs these days…. might as well join the union.

        i could go on and on…but i wont…[right now]…


        robertjhawkins1 responded:
        November 11, 2015 at 7:17 am

        First, thank you for not going “on and on.” You spared us all a lot of soul-sucking cynicism.

        I know you are bitter and maybe not without some reason, but do you really think, as your answers imply, that the best response is to do nothing, to retreat into our cynical little caves, sit on the sidelines and throw stingers and everyone who expresses hope?

        Next to you, I’m still a newbie, but I have seen positive changes on the island in just two years. I have seen positive responses from a government that doesn’t have a lot of money to enact “dream programs,” but has a lot of desire to make life better.

        And, yeah, I see some of the bad stuff too. But I won’t sit there and lob pot-shots at every person who wants to do some good. Come on, put your many years to good use and come up with some ideas for making life better here for everyone — even some of those gems you’ve seen shot down in the past.

        Nobody wants Belize to become Little USA, or even Little Texas, which is where it seems to be headed with all the cheap Houston flights! Nobody wants to see a Disneyfication of the island, either. But if we can make life better for all in some way, let’s try and do it. Together.

        Think big, or even the small things won’t happen.

        PS: Excellent article from the LA Times on the global sources and volume of plastic pollution.Thank you. Think of how much worse the US contribution would be if the country did nothing!


    Bill said:
    November 10, 2015 at 3:54 pm

    The majority of the cleanup crew appear to be caucasian. Do the natives care?

    Liked by 1 person

      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      November 10, 2015 at 4:03 pm

      Hi Bill,

      The majority of our group is made up of expats but that is more likely just reflective of our neighborhood. Belizeans do indeed care. They also work very hard to afford to live here and a Friday morning pickup time isn’t the best for working people. Many people I know and respect deeply work two and three jobs to make ends meet — much as people now do in the States.
      It is very hard to ask them to do more — well more than simply throw their trash into garbage cans, and I think they will now that the cans are out there. Each garbage can sends a message to love the island.
      Belizeans have been in the forefront of trying to find ways to rid the island of sargassum and trash, including our local government. Many Belizeans helped with recent cleanups sponsored by The Phoenix (on a Saturday) and at Grand Caribe (on a Sunday).
      On a recent global beach cleanup day, the pictures that I saw were predominantly of Belizeans all over the country participating.
      Believe me, they care about their country. I think if opportunities are created to make a difference, many more will step forward.


    Linda Young said:
    November 11, 2015 at 8:19 am

    Great article!!! I remember 50 years ago when Maui looked like AC. Where there is recognition, there is hope!! Keep up the good work, It will eventually pay off!!


      SPmQQse said:
      November 11, 2015 at 10:23 am

      linda…it appears to me , after speaking with friends of hawaiians and hawaiians themselves… [connection from a marraige]…… that they are not so impressed with the take over of their country by the USA, and the destruction of the environment that the so-called development brought.
      so…i cant be sure of what you meant by ”pay-off” ……?


    Lynn said:
    November 11, 2015 at 1:56 pm

    Bob, is there any problem with bringing the trash sticks on an airplane?? We’re flying down to the Grand Caribe just this weekend and might be able to bring one or two, but we’re concerned about airport security.
    Thanks for your article, by the way. I love your blog. You are such a realist! I can count on you for the good, the bad and the ugly.


    robertjhawkins1 responded:
    November 11, 2015 at 3:12 pm

    Thank you, Lynn. You are very kind. You can pack them in luggage. But carry-ons might be a problem. They confiscate anything that looks like a weapon. The folks who brought 12 down we’re going to say they are for catching lion fish but nobody asked!


      Lynn said:
      November 11, 2015 at 5:44 pm

      Ok, I’m going to try to bring down 4. We’ll have to figure out a way for me to get them to you because I won’t be able to join the trash brigade on Friday morning.


        robertjhawkins1 responded:
        November 11, 2015 at 7:52 pm

        Terrific! Thank you, Lynn. You’ll be just up the street from us. I’ll gladly swing by and pick them up. My e-mail is . This is a much-appreciated contribution.


    SPmQQse said:
    November 12, 2015 at 11:02 am

    garbage sticks….who wants a ”positive” suggestion…..
    maybe ask fishing guides for their busted fishing rods….they often have a 1/2 doz. laying around their shops/homes…….i’d think that,with a bit of re-purpose fixin…one would make a great garbage stick, with a handle grip.


    robertjhawkins1 responded:
    November 12, 2015 at 12:08 pm

    Good thinking, Moose! Just file a sharp point on the tip and stick it to the trash! Thanks.


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