Water and Trash: Bonaire

Do you ever wonder about the trash you leave behind when you travel? If the signs on hotel beds encouraging you to save water by re-using towels and taking short showers, make any difference? Or where the water you drink and shower in, comes from?

While visiting Bonaire this spring, I wondered about the Nespresso coffee pods and Keurig machine supplied by our hotel. What happened to the used pods?

John Sylvan, the inventor of the Keurig coffee machine, regrets creating it because it generates so much waste. Source: mic.com

And the water — clean and sweet, straight from the tap. What was the story there?

Bonaire is an island located 50 miles north of Venezuela, in the southern Caribbean. It is 24 miles long, 3 – 7 miles wide, and home to about 20,000 permanent residents. Its known history goes back centuries, a record of native tribes from South America, conquering Europeans, slave trade, salt-making and struggles for independence. Bonaire is a municipality of the Netherlands, and 80% of the people who live there are Dutch citizens.

Bonaire slave hut Photo credit: dronepicr

Bonaire’s beautiful coral reefs and abundant sea life makes it a popular draw for divers.

Unlike many tropical islands, Bonaire is not volcanic. It is a giant bed of coral, shoved above the waterline by tectonic forces. Under the soil is a lacework of tunnels, caves and porous materials. The soil is rich in calcium but thin, rocky, and in many places salty. There are no large native trees. There are no large bodies of fresh water. When the population was small, people relied on aquifers, which were brackish and limited in supply.

Wind surfers, Lac Bay, Bonaire

Unlike its more well-known neighboring islands Aruba and Curacao, Bonaire had until recently, an almost rural feel. That is changing. Cruise ships arrive regularly, tourism is picking up, more retirees are buying property and moving in. Developers are busy bulldozing, building, importing construction materials and water-hungry plants. There is more money (although from outward appearances, a stark divide between rich and poor).

The people of Bonaire are trying to balance economic growth with the health of the island’s fragile ecosystem. Much of the inland is a nature preserve where flamingos nest and the endangered Yellow-Shouldered Parrot is protected. The entire shoreline is part of the National Marine Park.

This hasn’t always been the case. Early cruise ships carted refuse, including human waste, on shore and dumped it. Toxins leached back into the ocean, causing terrible destruction. That at least doesn’t happen anymore.

But where is the water for all this growth coming from, and where is the trash going?

Water: The water we drank and showered in is reclaimed seawater. All of it.

Initially, drinking water was distilled from seawater using an energy intensive evaporation process. Now, a reverse-osmosis process is used which takes less electricity, does not release warm water into the sea and produces a sweet, pure water. It still requires a lot of electricity, which comes mostly from imported oil.

Bonaireans aim to wean themselves from imported energy sources. There is a new wind farm, a small, experimental solar array, and a new plant to process wind and diesel power. Energy independence is still a long way off, though.

Wind farm, Bonaire Photo credit: Contourglobal.com

Trash: The trash goes to an over-stuffed landfill near an ecologically sensitive lagoon. Materials are separated, but there are no recycling facilities. If recycling facilities are ever developed, people will know what is where, but for now trash is simply piling up.

Photo credit: Ronja Jansz

The Nespresso pods I used are contributing to that garbage pile. The water we drank and showered in is precious and expensive desalinated seawater.

Everywhere we go, small and beautiful wild places are facing similar challenges with water and trash. We can help.

When traveling, let local people know you appreciate their efforts to protect air, water and wildlife. Ask questions about those efforts. It’s a great way to break through the wall that often separates tourists from people and places they visit. Cheer on hotels and shopkeepers who recycle. Visit landfills. Find out about local conservation groups. Make it part of your travel budget to support them financially. Pay the snorkeling and diving fees cheerfully. Use water sparingly, and yes, reusing towels does make a difference. If waste isn’t being recycled, limit the waste you create and when possible, carry trash home.

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