Visiting Professor Studies Role of Women in Coastal Trash Mitigation

Activist Groups recycle 2,000 Tons of Trash from around the World every Year

On the northwestern coast of Yucatán, Mexico, there are some small cities of 10,000 that swell to 100,000 during the busy tourist season. This influx generates over 50 tons of trash per day. When that garbage ends up on city beaches, the task of cleaning up often falls to women’s activist groups that have formed throughout the region.

These groups and their efforts are the subject of research by Anne-Marie Hanson, McGill Visiting Assistant Professor of International Studies at Trinity, who spent part of early 2011 in Dzilam de Bravo exploring the role that women play in mitigating garbage-related coastal problems. She presented her work at the semester’s final installment of the Center for Urban and Global Studies’ “Global Vantage Point” series.

Hanson focused on the personal experiences of those in Yucatán dealing with this issue. Though they were known to joke around while working together, the women Hanson spent time with – a group called Las Costeras – were very serious about seaweed composting, recycling, and confronting the challenges associated with trash along Mexico’s coast.

Among the factors contributing to Yucatán’s severe coastal trash problem, Hanson said, are increasingly severe weather patterns, a rise in sea level, and intense tropical storms. In addition to trash produced locally, it comes from all over the world to Mexico’s coastline. It is not uncommon for Yucatán residents to find packaging washed up on the shore written in languages from around the globe.

Hanson said that intense urbanization in some parts of Yucatán has contributed to the region’s environmental challenges. She added that while many people think of urbanization and nature as being in different areas, “it’s actually much messier than that.”

In Dzilam de Bravo and other cities in the region, groups of women have banded together to clean up their communities overrun with trash. The group that Hanson accompanied was formed by 25 women in 1997 to clean the beaches and make their community more welcoming to tourists. The men in the community spent most of their time fishing, so it was women’s groups like this one that helped to clean up the city.

Today, the group has grown to over 400 members and collects about 2,000 tons of trash each year. It also receives temporary work grants to support unemployed workers who help with its recycling efforts. Earlier this year, Hanson said, the group was recognized by the state’s environmental agency and has a standing contract to supply compost to inland farmers. 

Hanson’s research rejects the assumption that such recycling efforts are undertaken to make money for survival by cashing in recyclables. Nor is it a result of the subordination of women. Instead, these women are activists seeking to improve the health of their communities and maintain otherwise neglected areas, she said.

The “Global Vantage Point” series brings to campus the work of the Trinity community around the world to campus. It will continue in the spring semester with lectures from both students and faculty.