beach-sian-kaan - different world mexican caribbean biosphere Recycling on the Riviera Maya mexico yucatan recycling a plastic island

What had been isolated fishing villages, sandy beaches and mangroves forty years ago has been forever transformed by the unimaginable growth of mass tourism along the Riviera Maya. Left in the dust of this uncontrolled growth is the infrastructure that should underpin these developments. In part 5 of our series Can Mass Tourism Be Sustainable we continue to explore these issues, in particular recycling on the Riviera Maya and one man’s attempt to build a plastic island.


No Consistent, Overall, Planning

There is very little overall planning, rather each municipality and each resort complex deals with its own garbage, sewage and recycling. The problem is not a lack of legislation, as Javier Peralta of Contraloria Ciudadana says “the state of Quintana Roo is one of the states with the largest number of environmental laws in Mexico, but the law is not applied.”

Garbage, trash and construction debris is often indiscriminately dumped in the interior where no one is witness to these illegal acts. When there are landfills, they are often unlined and overflowing resulting in the potential for contaminating the fragile and interconnected fresh water aquifer that underlies the Yucatan. See our article: Can Mass Tourism be Sustainable? Part 2, Riviera Maya: Geology and Pollution.

mass tourism_yucatan times Recycling on the Riviera Maya unsustainable growth recyclingEach resort and there are now hundreds, is responsible for its own waste removal and recycling. Some like the enormous Fairmount Mayakoba won accolades for composting, offering biodegradable bath products and coating their rooftops with recycled tires. Other resorts, usually smaller and older ones, do much less.

Some municipalities like Playa del Carmen have established a process for waste separation and recycling that takes plastic and cans. Other municipalities like Tulum, failed miserably, overloading the municipal landfill and connecting less than 20% of homes to the town’s waste management system. There is one collection center for recycling with glass being sent hundreds of kilometers to Veracruz and plastics now going to Cancun, we think. More on Tulum in our next article in this series.


What role is there for recycling on the Riviera Maya?

Tulum landfill from Dark Side of Tulum by Rachel Appel waste management ecotourism ecotravel plastic pollution recycling on the riviera maya mass tourismIt was not very long ago when soft drinks and beer purchased in Mexico came in glass bottles that were always returned to the bottlers and reused. Then the bottling companies successfully petitioned the government to use plastic and aluminum containers on the condition that they would be responsible for recycling. Those arrangements quickly fell apart and the bottlers no longer take responsibility for the complete lifecycle of their products. Aluminum is usually not a problem, because there is sufficient financial incentive for these cans to be recycled, but not so with plastic. (photo – Rachel Appel)

Most recyclables end up in dumps. When plastics were collected they were usually shipped to Progresso, the port near Merida, where they were loaded on ships destined for recycling in China. However, this solution may no longer be viable since China announced last July, that they are no longer accepting “dirty” plastic for recycling. It is uncertain if this includes plastic bottles from Mexico?

However, there is now a better option, a new, state-of-the-art plant (the largest in Mexico) has opened near Cancun that can handle up to 1,200 tons of waste daily from Cancun and Isla Mujeres. It generates electricity by incinerating garbage and also accepts compost and plastic, aluminum and cardboard for recycling. It’s uncertain if this plant will recycle plastics from other parts of the Riviera Maya.

garbage waste plastic pollution recycling akumal Recycling on the Riviera Maya mass tourism chloe frerck

In our own little town of Akumal there is no municipal recycling center. Plastics get collected, supposedly for recycling but no one seems to know where they exactly go. Several years ago, the local merchants got together and set up trash and recycling bins around the town and along the beach. Today only one remains, the others disappeared because locals misappropriated them for use in their own homes. Consequently, when trash is created on the beach, it is dumped in the vicinity of trash barrels for pick-up, vicinity being a loose concept here. Several of the hotels have robust recycling and composting systems and take pride in showing them off. (photo – Chloe Frerck)



Often, if a recycling bin is at hand it will be used, if it is not convenient the trash goes on the ground or out the window. Consequently, the success of recycling ultimately rests in changing local attitudes about the necessity of recycling. In a positive move, CEA the Centro Ecologico Akumal has been going into schools in Akumal pueblo to inform students on the importance of recycling plastics and to be concerned with waste disposal.


One Man’s Solution to Plastic Pollution – Build an Island!

Legend tells us that the ancient Aztecs built their capital on a small island in the middle of Lake Texcoco in central Mexico. As the population grew they increased the productivity of their agricultural land by building “chinampas.” Floating garden/islands staked to the lake bed that as earth was added, eventually sunk and became rooted to the lake bottom.

It appears that Richart Sowa took this very ancient, Mexican idea and applied it to today’s plastic pollution problem. In 2010, Richart took about a quarter million plastic bottles and recycled them by bundling them together to form a floating island anchored off Isla Mujeres near Cancun. As Richart says “I was turning the trash of the world into paradise.” He added a house, amenities, solar energy, wi-fi and vegetation and gave tours of Joysxee, his Eco-Island to anyone interested in off-beat recycling schemes.

Richart’s floating island was never anchored to the sea bottom, that could have raised zoning questions with the locals but it might have helped with the hurricanes. Joysxee was his third and most successful, attempt to build a floating island, the first two being torn apart by hurricanes.  As of the end of the vicious 2017 hurricane season it seems Joysxee was destined for the same fate. Richart is alive but reports indicate that his island is not. But his audacious endeavor will live on, testimony to the proposition that there is no limit to imaginative solutions for today’s plastic pollution problems.

By Robert Frerck, Blue Ocean Network


See These Related Blue Ocean Articles:

Can Mass Tourism be Sustainable? Part 4, The Riviera Maya’s Turtle Wars
Can Mass Tourism be Sustainable? Part 3, The Riviera Maya: Marine Protected Areas
Can Mass Tourism be Sustainable? Part 2, The Riviera Maya: Geology and Pollution
Can Mass Tourism be Sustainable? Riviera Maya Part 1, Beginnings
World’s Largest Underwater Cave gives up Amazing Secrets!
Rare Turtles Return After World’s Largest Beach Clean-up
Life Beyond Plastics: How Fashion is Killing Our Rivers
Ocean Plastic Will Triple by 2025, plus Adidas running on plastic from the sea
The real Cost of Your Next Pair of Jeans


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