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The Plastic War In San Blas

The San Blas Islands off the Atlantic coast of Panama are every bit as breathtakingly-beautiful as the photos suggest. However, with one hidden horror, the beaches are being suffocated by plastic waste.

While much of the plastic has, quite literally, sailed itself across the Atlantic or Caribbean Sea, there’s also a fair amount that’s been haphazardly dumped, either on land or just floating in the water. Croc shoes and broken flip-flops feature highly. It’s a devastating sight.

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Plastic and other debris floating on the shore of Mamitupu, an inhabited island in San Blas


With no refuse facilities on the islands, the local Guna Yala community have no alternative other than to burn their everyday rubbish; and sadly that includes plastic too. From a global health perspective, low heat burning on the beach is the worst thing you could do with plastic.

There’s a daily bonfire on almost every inhabited island; that’s their way of life and we have to accept it. However, it’s not ours.

But what do you do with your rubbish when you’re cruising islands like this for weeks or months at time?  Some cruisers hold a “trash and burn” party, getting together, making it fun and sociable to build a controlled fire and burn paper and cardboard waste. This way, they can ensure it’s done properly; no plastic is being thrown on the fire and the cruisers are taking their plastic bags that held the waste away with them to rinse and re-use.

However, some yachts cruising the islands are not helping the huge waste issue by offering the locals money to burn their rubbish.  Our Ocean Cruising Club (OCC) rally handbook cautions against this as the local boat boys will happily take dollars for your rubbish and then tip it into the ocean or leave it on the beach.

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This is the devastating side of San Blas that you don’t see posted in photos on Facebook


We recently came across several large bin bags, abandoned on a deserted island in the Lemmon Cays, full of mixed rubbish including a mass of cans, over 50 bottles, cardboard and plastic.  I suspect these bags may have eventually found themselves either on the burn pile or one of the many mangrove landfills, one of which is very obvious in the West Lemmon Cays.

But not this time!  We picked them up; sorted out and washed the bottles, plastic and other waste and kept it on board Two Drifters until we reached the marina in Shelter Bay, which recycles plastic.

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Skipper sorts through the abandoned bin bags we found on the beach and separates the recyclables


It appalls me that when the lifestyle of the Western World is not at our fingertips, how easily some people forget how to take care of the ocean and the coastline that they so proudly enjoy exploring.

The OCC have recently backed the Ocean Clean-Up Initiative, an inspirational campaign to encourage sailors worldwide to collect, recycle and report plastics removed from oceans and coasts where they cruise. Since leaving Curacao, our rally has actively participated in this with great success and so far there have been recycle bins nearby to put the collected debris in – with the exception of San Blas – so efforts here have been reduced. However, as Two Drifters have enjoyed the deserted beaches, we, along with others, have collected as much plastic as we can hold in the boat’s front lockers to take to the marina and recycle. As they say, every little bit helps.

When we don’t have facilities at our fingertips, we have to get better educated at how to dispose of this debris.  I am not a recycling connoisseur by any means, but I am learning; even to the point that the Twinnings and Typhoo tea bags we have on board contain a certain plastic, so they cannot be classed as organic waste.

One solution for waste plastic storage we have found is that wide-neck plastic bottles with tops make a great bin for filling with smaller plastic rubbish such as film wrappers, yoghurt pots, margarine tubs. It also contains the smell.

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A plastic bottle like this one makes a great container for putting all other plastic waste in


We rinse and recycle zip-lock bags that have been in the fridge containing open cheese, ham or fruit.  We also use containers to keep food fresh, reducing the amount of cling film and silver foil.

We have handed over a huge amount of the cans picked up off the beach as well as some of our own to the local Guna Yalas as they get money from the Colombian trading boats for recycling these.

Caledonia, an island we visited in the Eastern San Blas, are already doing what they can to stop the plastic build-up.  Among other initiatives they are actively recycling plastic water bottles into rubbish bins.  Such a great idea.

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Making a rubbish bin out of recycled water bottles; an inspirational idea on the San Blas island of Caledonia


Whether in the San Blas or other remote recycling areas around the world, cruising boats can help each offer by offering to take cleaned plastic waste from other boats they know when they are leaving the area or to go into a marina.  A chat on the local net or Facebook cruisers’ page is all it takes to get the ball rolling. It’s small steps, but so much better than leaving rubbish behind to be burned on the beaches.

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One of the beaches we, and a few other OCC boats, cleaned the plastic up from in Isla Pinos.    Now this is how clean the San Blas islands should always be


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