ISLA COLON, Panama – The striking four-story turreted castle glistened in the fading afternoon sun, casting an ominous shadow over the dungeon where I’d come to repent for my plastics sins.
This was no ordinary castle: It’s constructed of 60,000 empty plastic water and soda bottles caged in sturdy metal mesh, and stands imposingly at the edge of the snaking road that connects this Caribbean island’s urban hub with majestic golden beaches. Isla Colón is the main island in the Bocas del Toro archipelago, Panama’s prime holiday destination, but I hadn’t come for the surf or rum cocktails. I was here to get inspired.
“Nina you’re a criminal,” said the castle creator, Robert Bezeau, 69, after grilling me on my plastics knowledge – which, given that I consider myself fairly environmentally clued-up, had far more gaps than I’d imagined. “Tonight you must repent your crimes and think about how to work with the planet, rather than against it.”
I had a lot to feel guilty about just from the journey: I was forced to buy bottled water at Mexico City airport as there was no drinking fountain to refill my own, and then ate the limp airplane breakfast with single-use plastic cutlery (that came wrapped in plastic) having forgotten to pack my reusable travel spoon and fork.
“We’re all guilty of crimes against the planet,” said Bezeau grinning widely as he handed me a long-sleeved black and white striped prisoner’s uniform.
He’s right that I could do more, I thought to myself and entered the airless plastics dungeon. I lay down on the bottom bunk in the freshly painted white cell to contemplate my environmental transgressions with only a buzzing mosquito for company. It was going to be a long night.
Bocas del Toro is a lush biodiverse province on the northern coast of Panama which includes a tropical archipelago of nine main islands, 50 cays and thousands of isolated islets. With its sparkling turquoise waters, coral reef, daring waves and diverse forests it is one of Central America’s most popular so-called ecotourism destinations, attracting crowds of backpackers, surfers, all-inclusive holidaymakers and occasional cruise ships.
Tourism is the economic backbone of Bocas, but the plastic bottles, bags and packaging the tourists leave behind threaten to engulf this tiny tropical paradise where trash is mostly burnt or else ends up under the waves or in open landfills.
This toxic mix of mounting plastics, diminishing water sources exacerbated by increasingly frequent droughts and political inertia has propelled Isla Colón’s few thousand residents to the frontline of the global plastic crisis. In the face of seemingly insurmountable problems, islanders have launched a creative mix of environmental initiatives motivating other communities to follow suit.
Bezeau is an eccentric Canadian entrepreneur and self-declared King of Plastics on Colón, where an estimated 100,000 annual visitors discard up to a million plastic bottles.
In his native Montreal, the former factory owner never recycled or even thought about plastics because the streets were clean and rubbish collection efficient, he said. In contrast, when he arrived here on the island a decade ago, plastic was everywhere.
Bezeau spearheaded various clean-up ventures, including a self-funded community recycling scheme that collected over a million plastic bottles from local businesses over 14-months. Local politicians, restaurants and shop owners loved the scheme but didn’t want to help pay for it. That’s when Bezeau decided to go it alone and build a kitsch castle-dungeon theme park with an educational twist.
There’s a steady flow of visitors to the castle, some who’ve read about in online but mostly intrigued passers-by wowed by the curious grand structure.
Bezeau believes educating people about the environmental damage caused by plastic bottles is key to inspiring them to change their own behavior, and, in convincing them to persuade decision makers in business and government to take action like putting warning labels on plastic bottles.
The reception area – made from plastic bottles of course – is adorned with shocking pictures of oceans ruined by plastics and slogans like “change the world without changing the earth.”
“Education is everything. You can’t correct what you don’t know is wrong,” he said. “I’ve got 15 years left maybe, this won’t affect me, that’s why I want families to come here so the kids will get inspired.”
His vision for an entire plastics village and contagious can-do attitude convinced fashion designer Jeff Catalano, 49, and wife Justine, 34, a marketing expert, who moved to Colón from San Diego for a change of pace. They’ve built a hip, two-story open plan house with only the “truth wall” – a large vertical strip on the staircase that sparkles like stained glass – left uncovered. The rest of the 22,000 plastic bottles are covered with concrete. It’s minimal urban chic, and wonderfully cool ― one of the unintended benefits of Bezeau’s empty bottle design as the sun doesn’t heat air.
“We didn’t expect to be doing this, but living this way has changed our habits, now we’re much more careful about plastics and water use everywhere we go,” said Justine Catalano.
The problem is that neither knowledge nor guilt guarantees behavior change, and in fact evidence suggests the latter can be counterproductive, according to Elizabeth DeSombre, professor of environmental studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
My night in the dungeon left me feeling guilty, as I often do about my plastics use, but also impotent about what I could achieve.
“Encouraging people to try things like build a plastics house isn’t a bad thing and could be a niche part of the puzzle, but most plastics waste happens behind the scenes and is out of our hands,” said DeSombre.
That’s why she advocates focusing resources and efforts on reducing plastic production and its uses, rather than on how to repurpose, reuse or recycle it. This is what other community initiatives in Bocas del Toro have done, by tackling rules in a radical way.
A local law known as a municipal agreement, which banned plastic bags throughout the Bocas del Toro archipelago, was approved in April 2017 after concerned, organized citizens quietly and effectively lobbied elected delegates. An intensive community-led education campaign called Cero Basura (Zero Waste) was rolled out before the total ban ― the first of its kind in Panama ― came into force a year later in April 2018.
It’s been a resounding success – I didn’t see a single plastic bag during my visit to Isla Colón – despite a lack of enforcement due to budget constraints. (The municipal environmental officer post is unfilled, and there’s no budget for a local police force.)
“We were amazed at how easily and quickly the bag ban was implemented,” said Ángel Gonzalez, co-founder of Zero Waste and Protection of the Sea (a national NGO dedicated to marine conservation known in Spanish as Fundación ProMar). “There’s no political leadership, if it wasn’t for civil society efforts nothing would have changed. But we want to focus on reducing plastics use, not recycling or reuse, and for that, we have to work with local government.”
Single-use plastics are also banned under a separate local law, but in this case the results have been mixed. I was served drinks with three types of reusable straws – paper, metal and rubber – at different restaurants, but offered only bottled water at another. And it’s proven tough persuading food trucks running on small margins to replace plastic cutlery with wooden or reusable utensils and foam containers with more expensive cardboard. This rule needs a stronger incentive – fines or cheaper alternatives – to succeed.
Incentives work, just take aluminum cans. “I think of cans as a savings account,” said Jorge Goff, 68, based in Colón, who collected 12 sacks of cans last year that he sold for $100 at Christmas. The market value on the island is $0.30 per pound, rising to 50 cents on the mainland, and this small economic incentive motivates Goff to buy cans of beers and fizzy drinks rather than bottles.
He used to collect bottles too, until China’s ban on plastic imports last year left Panama without a plan and no state-sponsored recycling plants.
Other promising incentive-driven initiatives to cut plastics and deal with the trash crisis, including Bezeau’s recycling program that cut trash collection costs for small businesses, have fizzled out without structural support. The water refill business – where shops, restaurants and even the local hospital sold filtered water – was very successful for a while, after another local entrepreneur imported a bunch of mechanical filters from the United States. Refills cost far less than new bottles of water and proved popular with businesses (restaurants and shops), and consumers (tourists and residents), but most filters were abandoned due to problems with maintenance and spare parts.
Still, this tiny biodiverse island is an unlikely microcosm of all that’s good and bad in the global plastics crisis. The problem here is extreme, complex and urgent with large numbers of tourists, a growing population (who come to work with the tourists) and a significant water problem worsened by climate change, and, the solutions creative, radical and community-led in the absence of political and big business leadership. But unless there is meaningful and broad political action, this idyllic island could sink under its plastics problem.
“Symbolic efforts like the plastics dungeon can be useful only if they motivate people to work on less symbolic more systemic changes like banning bags,” said DeSombre. “Incentives and new rules are crucial for something as big as the plastics problem.”
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CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the location of Bocas del Toro as eastern Panama. It is on the north coast of Panama.