Is American Tourism in Cuba Bringing a Flood of Plastic Pollution?

By Brandise Danesewich

After a five-decade ban, Americans can now travel to Cuba if their trip falls under one of the twelve approved reasons for visit. Eco conservation tourism should be one of them instead of the more frequent tourism that involves mojitos, cigars, beach debauchery, and loud drunken bachelorette parties.

Mega cruises port at the island at record levels. With all of the major companies now selling tickets at heavily discounted rates, Cuba is the hot new vacation destination. Millions more people will visit Cuba this year over last year.

Previously isolated from western consumerism culture, Cuba is in the process of one of the biggest changes in recent times. On the ground, I witnessed the role tourism is playing to worsen the growing environmental problems in Cuba.

Even before the influx of visitors, the condition of Cuba’s environment has been treated as state secrets, and there are few public reports on the extent of problems. We know Havana Bay is one of the most contaminated zones in the Caribbean because of industrial and community waste from the Cuban capital. A local told me some people still discard their refuse in the sea over the Malecon wall when the tide comes in.  

Photos by Brandise Danesewich

With rapid industrialization, minimizing the consumption of single-use plastic and management of plastic waste infrastructure in Cuba needs to take place. The Cuban Ministry of the Interior does have an environmental education program, wherein the the government promotes organic farming. Reducing single-use plastic should be addressed in this education program.

Yes, the locals eat off real plates and drink out of real cups when they eat at the peso shops (a mostly-locals place to acquire cheap street food in Cuba at a 10th of the cost of the tourists stops). But, convenience in the modern era is becoming more of a demand—meaning an increase in waste is soon to follow. Rationing is still a reality for some, but over-consuming is also a problem, especially for tourists.

More foreigners are demanding their western ways and the ‘modern conveniences’ of the take away culture they are used to. I witnessed, on two different occasions, a group of tourists demanding they get their mojitos in take away plastic cups so they could walk around the old town and drink their fish bowl mojitos and daiquiris a la Bourbon Street style. To-go came with a colorful handful of plastic single-use straws folded to look like a flamingo.

Cuba is changing at a rapid pace, right before our eyes. If you are lucky enough to visit, tread lightly. Respect the ocean. Think of the children of Cuba, who are the future.

Brandise Danesewich is an actress, model, and photographer. Follow her on Instagram @antimodel