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Apr 24, 2019

Plastic-Free and Carbon-Neutral; Can Costa Rica Keep its Promises?

Costa Rica’s commitment to reach carbon neutrality and eliminate single-use plastics by 2021 is either a global inspiration or a cosmic delusion.


Davey Braun

Costa Rica has made two gargantuan promises. The Costa Rican government has pledged to rid the country of single-use plastics and transform its infrastructure to carbon-neutral status, both by 2021. These commitments are interlinked, as carbon – typically oil – is the main ingredient used to process plastic.


Costa Rica’s population is composed of less than 5 million people; however, it is a world leader in renewable energy sources, including hydropower, geothermal, wind, solar and volcanoes. Over the past four years, the country as a whole has operated 100% on sustainable and renewable energy, with no use of coal, oil or natural gas, for a total of 300 days (with 75 days straight days in 2015 and 76 straight days in 2016).

Poás Volcano, Costa Rica. Photo by Alejandro Leiton

Costa Rica’s new president, 38-year-old former journalist Carlos Alvarado, recently announced a plan to make his country the first carbon-neutral nation in the world by 2021. That year marks the 200th anniversary of the country’s independence from Spanish colonial rule which began with Christopher Columbus’s landing in 1502.

In addition to basing all electricity generation on renewable resources, which gives Costa Rica one of the lowest ratios of greenhouse gas emissions to electrical consumption on the planet, the biggest challenge in the way of fully decarbonizing by 2021 is to eliminate fossil fuels from the transportation sector.

According to the country’s National Meteorological Institute, 64% of Costa Rica’s emissions come from energy use, more than two thirds of which comes from transportation, and the country’s rapidly expanding private transportation sector remains largely petrol-dependent.

While a total elimination of fossil fuels by 2021 is unrealistic, one goal of carbon neutrality aims to offset the use of coal, oil, and gasoline combustion by a corresponding reduction of greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere, such as reforestation. Forest density has doubled in Costa Rica since 1984, from 26% to 52% this year.

Monteverde, Costa Rica. Photo by Ben Ostrower.

But, in order for Costa Rica to reach its zero-emissions goal, it must dramatically initiate policies to promote the use of renewables in transportation, both in public and private sectors, such as offering tax incentives for its private corporations and citizens to purchase electric vehicles.

Read next on TOJ: Three Things Everyone Can Do to Fight Climate Change Right Now

With Costa Rica leading the way in promising a carbon-neutral future, several other countries within Latin American and the Carribbean, as well as European countries like The Netherlands and Germany, are following suit by setting their own carbon neutral goals as well. Perhaps an ambitious, inspirational goal can be more influential than a readily obtainable one.


The ocean fills up with 8 million tons of plastic every year and many experts predict that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Tamarindo Beach, Costa Rica. Photo by Zachary Shea.

Costa Rica is home to 6% of the world’s biodiversity in only 20,000 square miles. Considering the geography of Costa Rica, with many important rivers that connect the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea, the country is an ecological linchpin. The Tárcoles River, which drains approximately 67% of Costa Rica’s untreated organic and industrial waste, is the most contaminated river in Central America, precipitating a deleterious impact on human health.

Sea Turtle at Ostional, Costa Rica. Photo by Juanma Clemente Alloza

“A plastic bag takes a thousand years to decompose.”

The Costa Rican government, led by President Quesada, has made progressive environmental decisions to close zoos, end oil drilling, reverse deforestation, and designate one-quarter of the country as protected areas. Costa Rica’s Ministries of Health and Environment and Energy, the United Nations Development Programme, and local governments are coordinating to institute a comprehensive national to strategy eliminate single-use plastic by the year 2021.

Green Frog at the Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica. Photo by Trevor Cole

Plastic bags, bottles and straws are only used for a few moments but take hundreds of years to decompose. A single plastic bottle can take more than 450 years to decompose, while a plastic bag can take more than a thousand years. Large plastic debris chokes and entangles wildlife, and further, small particles of plastic are ingested by marine life, thus entering the food chain for human consumption. Costa Rica’s new national strategy is to replace these unnatural plastics with renewable materials that can biodegrade within six months.

Single-use plastics have a huge impact on the Costa Rican economy because tourism contributes over 6% of the country’s GDP. If the beaches become filled with plastic waste, people will stop visiting.


In 2018, Costa Rica was the largest plastic importer in all of Central America, according to the United Nations Development Program. An estimated 550 tons of plastic are dumped daily in Costa Rica; much of it ending up as part of the Costa Rican landscape, polluting rivers, lakes, and beaches.

Plastic bottles and debris on the beach. Photo by John Cameron.

Transforming Costa Rica into a plastic-free zone is a national strategy that will rely on voluntary action across national industries as well as at the community level.

Public institutions like hospitals and the Ministries of Education, Justice, and Social Security will stop purchasing single-use plastics, but the question remains whether these practices will trickle down to the individual consumer.

The country will also need alternative biodegradable products, incentives to comply with policies, and punishments for bad actors. The country of Ireland proved that a 15-cent tax per plastic bag can drop consumption by 90%. But, as of right now, there are no laws in Costa Rica to establish a tax or create prohibitions for the use of plastic.


Admirably, Costa Rica is moving towards a plastic-free and carbon-neutral future despite undeniable corporate pressures, the same ones that control United States policy through tainted lobbying practices.

“US leaders manipulate voters through media spin and semantics.”

In contrast to Costa Rica’s noble commitments, the United States leadership continually enacts policies that fly in the face of public interest by manipulating voters through media spin and semantics (i.e. popularizing the term “The Death tax” for the estate taxation of the wealthiest 0.2% of the population, or “Death Panels” for advance directives health care counseling). In this case, Trump has taken the strategy of utter denial, labeling climate change as the “Greatest hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese.

Read next on TOJ: A Buried Report; Trump Refuses to Believe it

In 2017, President Trump announced that the U.S. would cease all participation in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation, an agreement by over 200 countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, based on the rationale that “The Paris accord will undermine (the U.S.) economy,” and “put (the U.S.) at a permanent disadvantage.”

According to the Clean Air Council, only one-quarter of 1% of the more than 7 billion pounds of discarded polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is recycled each year in the U.S. This degradation of the planet will continue so long as US policy is predicated on the belief that the engine of economic growth is the use of fossil fuels.

Plastic Bottles take more than 450 years to decompose. Photo by Jonathan Chng

The Costa Rican government amended its constitution in 1994 to include each citizen’s right to a healthy environment, one that is free of contamination. In fact, more than half of the world’s countries have some degree of a guaranteed, specific right to public health and medical care for their citizens written into their national constitutions. The United States is one of only 86 countries that still does not. US leaders have disregarded their citizens’ inalienable right to a clean environment, as well as the economic interests in a clean, sustainable, and domestic supply of electricity.

Read next on TOJ: In the US, a lawsuit against the federal government could galvanize climate change policy.


“Converting all cars to electric power seems resoundingly unrealistic.”

Costa Rica is considered a world leader in wildlife conservation and ecotourism. But, if Costa Rica is to become the first country to achieve carbon-neutrality on such an abridged timeline – replacing or offsetting fossil fuels with renewable resources – it will need to reconcile its growing private transportation sector’s dependence on oil. Converting all cars to electric power before the bicentennial of the nation’s independence seems resoundingly unrealistic. Therefore, carbon-offsetting must ramp up at scale.

Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica. Photo by Miguel Bruna.

Furthermore, for Costa Rica to eradicate all single-use plastics by 2021, it will need to speed up the production of packaging alternatives that are 100% recyclable or biodegradable, not petroleum based.

Both the plastic-free promise and the carbon neutral commitment represent a cultural paradigm shift. New, affordable alternatives must be made pervasive and accessible. Consumer habits must adapt. New inclinations towards re-use and new innovations built on re-designs must emerge.

These evolving policies spark an opportunity for companies to disrupt the consumer marketplace by introducing eco-friendly products and packaging, as well as renewable energy repurposing processes. If Costa Rica lives up to these promises, it will prove that the engine of a country’s economy does not need to come at the cost of its peoples’ health.

Feature Image: Iguana eye. Photo by Thomas Lipke.

Introducing The Outdoor Voyage

Whilst you’re here, given you believe in our mission, we would love to introduce you to The Outdoor Voyage – our booking platform and online marketplace which only lists good operators, who care for sustainability, the environment and immersive, authentic experiences. All listed prices are agreed directly with the operator, and we promise that 86% of any money spent ends up supporting the local community that you’re visiting. Click the image below to find out more.

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May 14, 2019

Bringing Kiwi Back to Wellington

As New Zealand announces a new plan to reverse the decline of the iconic kiwi bird, Wellingtonians are already lining up to save their emblematic bird.



Sean Verity

This article was made available to The Outdoor Journal via a press release by Tourism New Zealand.

As New Zealand announces a new plan to reverse the decline of the iconic Kiwi bird, Wellingtonians are already lining up to save their emblematic bird. Wellingtonians are known for their love of flat whites and their passion for the arts. But there’s a new pastime that’s rapidly growing in New Zealand’s capital and all around the country.

Assembling and setting traps for rats, stoats and other predators in their own backyards. It’s a somewhat unlikely hobby, but in Wellington alone, there are now more than 70 community groups involved in pest management.  They’re all aiming at making their home town the first predator-free capital city in the world and a paradise for native birds such as the tīeke (Saddleback), hihi (stitchbird), kākā, kākāriki and toutouwai (North Island robin). 

In Wellington alone there are now more than 70 community groups involved in pest management all aiming at making their home town the first predator-free capital city in the world. Photo by: Capital Kiwi

Ever since conservation project Zealandia created a fully fenced 225-hectare ecosanctuary within the city limits in 1999, native birdlife has returned to many suburbs and Wellingtonians have embraced their avian friends. The groups are part of a groundswell of community conservation initiatives sweeping New Zealand and delivering fantastic results.

“Where once it would have been a remarkable sight to see a single kākā (a boisterous native parrot) in the wilderness of our mountain ranges, we now have literally hundreds of them across Wellington city, screeching across city skies,” says self-confessed “bird nerd” Paul Ward. Buoyed by the birdsong orchestra he thought, “Why stop there? Let’s bring back New Zealand’s most iconic bird, the Kiwi.” “The only time I’d seen a Kiwi growing up was in a zoo, and that’s not right for our national taonga (treasure),” he insists. 

The flightless birds with hair-like feathers and the chopstick bill have been absent from Wellington for over a century due to the loss of their habitat and the spread of predators. Ward’s ambitious project Capital Kiwi hopes to lure Kiwi back to the Wellington region within the next decade. Approximately 4,400 traps will be set on 23,000 hectares of public and private land stretching from the outskirts of town to the coast.

“Kiwi may disappear from the mainland in our lifetime”

As long as stoats, ferrets and weasels are around, Kiwi chicks have hardly any chance of surviving their first year.  An average of 27 Kiwis are killed by predators each day according to charity ‘Kiwis for Kiwi’ which supports community-led initiatives around the country. They warn that at this rate “Kiwi may disappear from the mainland in our lifetime.” 

But projects in Rakiura / Stewart Island in the south of New Zealand, Whangarei Heads in the north and Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty have shown that with the involvement of the community as kaitiaki (guardians) it is possible to grow a wild Kiwi population. 

The project Capital Kiwi hopes to bring New Zealand’s iconic birds back to Wellington by setting more than 4,000 traps in the hills on the outskirts of the city. Photo by: Capital Kiwi.

Michelle Impey, from Kiwis for Kiwi explains that one of the challenges of Kiwi conservation is “getting people to understand and care about something they can’t see and don’t experience.”

Kiwis are nocturnal, and with only a few exceptions live far removed from cities, towns and villages. “Bringing Kiwi closer to where Kiwis live makes them top of mind, completely relevant, and creates a sense of ownership with those who are privileged enough to have them living on or near their land,” Impey adds. She hopes that the new project will create “a city of Kiwi conservationists” who feel a personal attachment to their national bird. 

In August 2018 the government’s Predator Free 2050 initiative, which aims to rid New Zealand of the most damaging introduced predators that threaten the nation’s natural wildlife by 2050, announced their support for Capital Kiwi, committing more than NZ$3.2 million over the next five years.  It may sound like a lot of money, but the other way of looking at this is “What is the cost if we don’t?” Ward ponders.

“Can we, as a nation of Kiwis, afford to let our national icon die and become extinct? What would that say about us as guardians of the taonga (treasure) that makes our country so special and unique?”


Ninety-year-old Ted Smith, who lives in the small seaside settlement of Makara just over the hills from Wellington, helped to kick off the project with the setting of the first trap in November. He and his local community started trapping in their backyards a decade ago which resulted in a remarkable increase in birdlife – tūī, kākā, kererū, pūkeko, kingfishers, quails and others. “If we allow Kiwi to die out then we deserve to be called idiots,” he says. Wellingtonians love the vision of having Kiwi rummaging through their gardens and Ward says he’s been overwhelmed with the offers of help and support from the community.  

“We want to see Kiwi come back into Wellington”

Capital Kiwi has received hundreds of emails from people keen to help. Schoolchildren are now monitoring tracking tunnels, mountain bikers and trail runners check reserve trap lines on lunchtime rides and families come together to build traps. If the eradication proves successful after three years, the Department of Conservation will look at translocating Kiwi to the hillsides. The hope is that in less than a decade, tourists will be able to post their Kiwi encounters on the outskirts of Wellington on social media, and locals will beam with pride at hearing the shrill call of the country’s iconic birds in their backyards. 

“I would love to be woken up by the sound of the Kiwi. We want to see Kiwi come back into Wellington,” the capital’s Major Justin Lester says. 

The Department of Conservation is backing Capital Kiwi too. “Getting Kiwi back into the hills of Wellington where people can hear them call is a great way to demonstrate what New Zealand could look like if we get rid of the stoats and ferrets,” DOC’s Jack Mace says. 

“It would certainly add another feather to Wellington’s cap as one of the best places to see New Zealand’s unique wildlife.”

Introducing The Outdoor Voyage

Whilst you’re here, given you believe in our mission, we would love to introduce you to The Outdoor Voyage – our booking platform and online marketplace which only lists good operators, who care for sustainability, the environment and immersive, authentic experiences. All listed prices are agreed directly with the operator, and we promise that 86% of any money spent ends up supporting the local community that you’re visiting. Click the image below to find out more.

Cover Photo: New Zealand’s little spotted Kiwi at Zealandia Eco-sanctuary in Wellington. Photo by: Zealandia Eco-sanctuary


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