The University of Iowa

Trading sandals for trash bags

April 8th, 2014

UI grad student researches garbage in Veracruz, Mexico

By Taylor Donovan

Blake Rupe

For most students, summers are filled with bikinis and beach balls. However, for one Iowa student, her beach gear consisted of safety gloves and sanitary bags.

Blake Rupe, a University of Iowa graduate student from Ottumwa, Iowa, conducted research on the garbage presence in Veracruz, Mexico, specifically concentrating on the beaches near the city. The project will aid Rupe in writing her M.A. thesis for her degree in International Studies focusing on Latin American Environmental policy.

Rupe received a Stanley Award for International Research that allowed her to conduct research in Veracruz over a period of eight weeks. She chose this region specifically because of the lack of research collected in the area and because of the biodiversity and ecologically important collection of coral reefs 20 meters from the coast, which made floating trash on the shoreline a problem.

During this time abroad, her schedule fluctuated daily. Some days she was weighing and categorizing the inorganic material according to composition. Other days she was collecting and analyzing garbage collected from the shoreline. In total, she collected 1,806 pounds of marine debris, most of this material being glass and plastic.

Bottle caps litter the sand in Veracruz

Most of the time she worked from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., afterwards spending the rest of the day walking the Veracruz coast or touring the fascinating city. During her off days, however, Rupe would visit the historical sites, museums, and a local aquarium that celebrated Veracruz's unique coral reefs. Here, patrons were allowed to dive into the aquarium's tanks and feed the sharks, a thrilling opportunity that Rupe took full advantage of.

Rupe got to know many locals who educated her on the regional dialect and familiarized her on waste habits of the inhabitants. On some occasions, she also encountered the not-so-friendly natives: a territorial beach iguana along with his cranky crab crew.

Rupe says the residents of Veracruz were very supportive of her project.

"Every day I collected garbage, I had at least three random strangers who were walking by ask what my project was about and even helped me do some of the collecting!" she said. "It was great to see the local appreciation for their coastal zones and ecosystems, and that they recognized the importance of clean oceans."

Rupe believes that reinforcing recycling habits will result in less waste on Veracruz’s beaches

Although the locals were aware of the issues of oceanic waste, many were unsure of how the beaches acquired such a large waste build-up. Two plausible answers might have been that there wasn't much education or interest in recycling or waste management understood by tourists visiting the beaches, or that there weren't enough centrally-located trash receptacles.

Rupe hopes that her results will "uncover new avenues for policy research regarding the efficiency of the Veracruz system as a model for other cities." She hopes to answer these questions upon further trips to Veracruz where she will focus on ocean conservation and management policy.

Rupe is currently developing a mobile application "Re-APP" that socializes and incentivizes a user's recycling and reusing habits. She believes that increasing knowledge and reestablishing recycling habits will benefit the cause of lowering waste materials entering the ocean and, in turn, make the shoreline a more enjoyable destination.