Cleaning a beach,

over and over

By Julie Vigneault

Founder at Operation Rich Coast

Environment | Community | Plastic

Reading time : 4 minutes

Text by Julie Vigneault

Photography by Julie Vigneault and Guillaume Shea-Blais

Online May 22nd 2019

Fighting plastics through community


To get closer to nature and, above all, to do her part in safeguarding Costa Rica's crystal clear waters, Julie Vigneault tells how her personal project has become that of an entire community and much more.

Cleaning a beach, over and over...

Originally from Montreal and daughter of a faithful "Snowbird", I went 3 years ago to visit my father in Costa Rica. He built an inn, his little piece of paradise, and has been staying there for 30 years now during the Quebec winter. Curious to see the evolution of my father's endless project, I spent a month with him and in his universe. This stay changed my life. A few weeks after my return to Quebec, I made the decision to move there full-time and become involved in the management of the company. I am now what is called an expatriate or "expat" to my friends. I left my country, my profession in film, my friends and my family to try something new, to try to get closer to this quest that inhabited me to live closer to nature and in harmony with it. Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the jungle, Manuel Antonio National Park offers me exactly the balance and proximity I was always looking for when spending my weekends on regional adventures. 

I traded my snowboard for a surfboard, and my hat and scarf for a mask and snorkel! 

But getting closer to nature nowadays also means witnessing a great upheaval. Already having a keen interest in the environment, I quickly realized that not everything around me was "green". Although Costa Rica is recognized worldwide as a pioneer in the field of environmental sustainability, as the tourism sector has greatly contributed to the evolution of this approach, there are still many gaps in waste and wastewater management. 


“ Each of us can make a difference.

Together, we make the change. 

― Barbara Mulkski

 My village, highly coveted by tourism for its abundance in terms of biodiversity, seems at first sight to be a clean and environmentally friendly place. It is by going off the beaten track that we quickly realize that infrastructures have been hastily built on outdated foundations, as is the case in most seaside resorts around the world. The influx of visitors is growing faster than the ability to manage the environmental and economic impacts of tourism appears to be a priority. 

Clean a beach, then two and three, and ten and more

It was while having my coffee by the sea that I decided to take action against the accumulation of waste that I could see on the Cocal peninsula in front of me. So I created a Facebook event for the next Saturday and tried to rally people to help me clean up this beautiful place. Saturday came, and there were... three of us. At first disappointed by the lack of response, it was by talking to my new allies, sharing the same feeling, that I decided to organize another one. We repeated the experiment twice a month until the day we came up with the idea of launching a national clean-up activity.  

In a few weeks, we brought together more than 25 ambassadors and Operation Rich Coast (ORC) and Costa Rica's National Clean-up Day were born. This year, in 2019, more than 45 sites were cleaned simultaneously the day after New Year's Day. Increasing in popularity on social media, ORC is now, among other things, a web platform where you can find a full weekly schedule displaying the many initiatives and activities organized across the country and more. 

But how do we stop the endless cleaning?

I must admit that participating in dozens of clean-ups can become as rewarding as it is demotivating, discouraging at times. The task must be constantly repeated given the continuous flow of debris.

We realize that most of the items recovered are non-recyclable due to exposure to sunlight and salt water. We are also becoming aware that the items that are repeated could have been easily avoided by small daily changes so simple that we want to go and shout it from the rooftops! Not to mention that the debris that ends up on the beach is that which has some buoyancy such as plastic bottles, straws, lighters, styrofoam packaging, toothbrushes, cigarettes, etc. So there is a lot of pollution hidden underwater like everything that is made of metal, aluminum, plastic bags, commercial fishing equipment, used tires, glass bottles and collects on the seabed. This is why we are seeing more and more "Dive for Debris" events that require scuba diving equipment and certification in order to recover these items along the coast. I am fortunate to have a great diving center in the region that organizes these events monthly for a low cost.  

While beach clean-ups are great necessary and rewarding activities, they are also the end of a cycle when contamination and the loss of a potentially recyclable value could have been avoided. They carry a strong message reminding us that nothing disappears, most marine pollution being fed by the rivers that cross cities and in which an incredible amount of waste is found. We realize that the problem does not necessarily come from coastal areas. 

The most important impact that comes out of it, in my opinion, is the awareness that we have during the activity and the instinct to immediately want to change our lifestyle in response to the problem. Scientists predict that at the current rate, if nothing changes, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight by 2050. The contamination comes from unusual sources and despite the system that seems to be in place, a lot of waste does not go where we think it goes.

Education, awareness : the importance of working upstream

Recycling is good, but it's not enough. Only about 10% of what is put into recycling is actually recycled. We should not believe that because we put our waste in the bin or at recycling that it really ends up in the right place. The real solution lies in reducing overall and therefore individual consumption.  What will ONE plastic bottle change? Multiplied by 7.7 billion people, it is the difference. It lies in the choice of each individual. That is why we must work hard upstream through education, since that is really where change happens.

It is by teaching, inspiring and acting that there is an opportunity to build a society that is conscientious and respectful of its environment and its neighbour. It is estimated that the world population is increasing by about 83 million people per year. At this rate, our indifference and inaction to environmental issues is endangering our own species and everything around us. There is no other green and blue planet as welcoming as the one on which we walk in the universe. There is no greater lesson to learn during our time on Earth than to live in harmony with our neighbour and the nature that sustains us. The strength really lies in the union. 

That is why we must know how to influence by our actions and messages. Each of us can do a multitude of small things. Engaging with our community, participating in community efforts and voting for governments that propose real fundamental changes to address climate change is an absolute necessity. It is in action that we can make a difference. My experience in Costa Rica is an example..

Become the drop of water that will collectively create the wave of change.

Julie Vigneault

Community leader, environmentalist & surfer

Julie is an inspiring example of an unconventional journey and embodies a nomadic generation that she represents with brio. Instigator and founder of Operation Rich Coast in Costa Rica, Julie is an instigator of change and a positive leader in her community. Beach clean-ups are at the heart of his approach.

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