Cleaning a beach,
over and over
By Julie Vigneault
Founder at Operation Rich Coast
Environment | Community | Plastic
Reading time : 4 minutes
Text by Julie Vigneault
Photography by Julie Vigneault and Guillaume Shea-Blais
Online June 9th 2020
As part of Oceans Week, the Blue Organization is sharing stories from our employees, to share their inspiring and informative stories with you. Immerse yourself in our theme of plastic pollution.
To get closer to nature, but above all to do her part in safeguarding Costa Rica's crystalline waters, Julie Vigneault tells how her personal project has become that of an entire community and much more. Here is the story of a Quebec woman in Costa Rica who cleans the beaches of the most sustainable country in the world.
Cleaning a beach, over and over...
Originally from Montreal and the daughter of a loyal "Snowbird", I went 5 years ago to visit my father in Costa Rica. He built an inn there with his carpenter's hands, his little piece of paradise, and he has been staying there for 30 years now during the Quebec winter. Curious to see the evolution of my father's never-ending project, I spent a month by his side to discover his world more intimately.
This stay changed my life.
A few weeks after my return to Quebec, I made the decision to move there full time and get involved in the management of the company. I am now what we call an expatriate or "expat" to my friends. I may have left my country, but I am far from leaving my pride in Quebec! However, I had to take the plunge, take the plunge, and leave my profession in film, my friends and my family. My motivation was simple, it was to try something new, but above all to try to get closer to the quest I had: to live closer to nature and in harmony with it. Camped between the Pacific Ocean and the jungle, Manuel Antonio National Park offers me exactly the balance and closeness that I was always looking for when I spent my weekends in the region. And this, close to my father.
“ I traded my snowboard for a surfboard, and my hat and scarf for a mask and snorkel! ”
But to get closer to nature these days is also to witness a great upheaval. Having already taken an interest in the environment, I quickly realized that not everything around me was "green". Even though Costa Rica is recognized worldwide as a pioneer in the field of environmental sustainability, with the tourism sector having contributed greatly to the evolution of this approach, there are still many gaps in waste and wastewater management.
My village, highly coveted by tourism for its rich and abundant biodiversity, lush jungle and golden beaches, seems at first glance to be a clean and environmentally conscious place. It is by going off the beaten track that one quickly realizes that the infrastructures were hastily built on obsolete bases, as is the case in the majority of the seaside areas throughout the world. The influx of visitors is growing faster than the capacity to manage environmental impacts, and the economic benefits generated by tourism seem to take precedence.
Clean a beach, a never ending job
It was while having my coffee by the sea that I decided to take action against the accumulation of waste I could see on the Cocal peninsula in front of me. This peninsula is on the fringe of the tourist sector; it is described as the tourist backstage. It is described as the backdrop for tourism. Many of its residents are very poor and the environment is not the most affluent in the country. This is a big gap with the reality of tourist places. So I created a Facebook event for the following Saturday and tried to rally people to come and help me clean up this beautiful place, but contaminated and invaded under the plastic. Saturday came, and there were... three of us. At first disappointed by the lack of answers, it's while chatting with my new allies, sharing the same feeling, that I decided to organize another one, and to persevere. Quietly, the community rallied, and then grew. We repeated the experience twice a month, more and more new faces joined us, until the day when the idea came up to coordinate a national clean-up event.
Within a few weeks, we had more than 25 ambassadors in 25 locations across the country, from the North to the South of Costa Rica! The result was Operation Rich Coast (ORC) and Costa Rica's National Clean-up Day. In 2019, more than 45 locations were cleaned up simultaneously, with more than 1300 volunteers throughout the country! Gaining popularity on social media, Operation Rich Coast is now a web platform where one can find centralized information and a busy weekly schedule displaying the many clean-up initiatives and activities organized across the country.
But how do we stop the endless cleaning?
I must admit that participating in dozens of cleanups can be as rewarding as it is demotivating... and discouraging at times. It's a task that has to be done over and over again with the constant flow of debris, starting tide after tide.
We also realize that the majority of plastic items recovered are not recyclable due to degradation from exposure to the sun and salt water. In fact, plastic subjected to sunlight, wave action, and salt breaks down and loses its recyclable properties.
There is also an awareness that the items mainly collected could have been easily avoided by small daily changes. Single-use plastic bottles, straws and wrappers for example, are easily avoided when reusable items are provided. Sometimes they are so simple and obvious, you'd want to shout it from the rooftops! Let's not forget that the debris that ends up on the beach is debris that has some kind of buoyancy, such as plastic bottles, straws, lighters, styrofoam packaging, toothbrushes, cigarettes, etc. So there's a lot of hidden pollution underwater like anything made of metal, aluminum, plastic bags, commercial fishing equipment, used tires, glass bottles, all of which are collected on the sea floor. That's why underwater environmental action is as important as coastal clean-up!
Scientists predict that at the current rate, if nothing changes, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight by 2050. While beach clean-ups are necessary and rewarding activities, they are also really the end of a cycle that could have been avoided; the contamination of the environment, and the loss of potentially recyclable value.
These ubiquitous materials on the world's coastlines carry a great message reminding us that nothing goes away.
" These ubiquitous materials on coastlines around the world carry a great message reminding us
that nothing disappears. "
Marine pollution being fuelled by rivers flowing through cities and in which an incredible amount of garbage is found is not to be taken lightly. We realize that the problem is not only in coastal areas. The problem even emerges upstream, with waste travelling incredible distances within rivers inland.
The importance of working upstream
Recycling is good, but it's not enough. Only 10% of what is put in the recycling bin is actually recycled, overall. We must not believe that because we put our waste in the trash or at the recycling bin that it really ends up in the right place. The solution lies in reducing overall consumption at source, both industrial and individual.
What will ONE plastic bottle change?
Multiplied by 7.7 billion people, that's the difference. The difference lies in the choice of each individual. This is why a great deal of work needs to be done upstream through education, since that is really where change happens. The most important spin-off, in my view, is this awareness. During a cleansing, it is difficult to avoid introspection. Picking up plastic on the riverbank also means recognizing its use in our daily lives. The instinct to immediately want to change our lifestyle habits in the face of the problem is common among the participants.
It is by teaching, inspiring and taking action that we can build a society that is conscientious and respectful of its environment and its fellow man. It is calculated that the world's population is growing by about 83 million people a year. At this rate, our indifference and inaction on environmental issues is endangering our own species and everything around us. There is no other green and blue planet as welcoming as the one we walk on in the universe. There are no greater lessons to be learned while on Earth than how to live in harmony with our neighbour and the nature that sustains us. The strength really lies in union.
That is why we must know how to influence by our actions and our messages. Each one of us can make a multitude of small gestures. Getting involved in our communities, participating in community efforts and voting for governments that propose real substantive changes to address climate change is an absolute necessity. It is through action that we can make a difference. My experience in Costa Rica is an example of that. Becoming the drop in the bucket that collectively will create the wave of change.
For me, it was moving into the jungle with my father and reconnecting with what made sense for my future.
Taking control. Make choices.
Create your own tidal wave.
Leader de communauté, surfeuse
Julie est un exemple inspirant d’un parcours non conventionnel et incarne une génération nomade qu’elle représente avec brio. Instigatrice et fondatrice de Operation Rich Coast au Costa Rica, Julie est une leader positive et inspirante pour sa communauté. Les nettoyages de plage sont au coeur de sa démarche.
Operation Rich Coast
Community leader, environmentalist & surfer
Julie is an inspiring example of an unconventional journey and embodies a nomadic generation that she represents with brio. Instigator and founder of Operation Rich Coast in Costa Rica, Julie is a positive and inspiring leader in her community. Beach clean-ups are at the heart of her approach.