This post is about a fun little project for the upcoming Christmas holidays that I dreamt up while I was in Ecuador.
I spent 3 1/2 weeks in Santa Marianita while I was in Ecuador, and my principle aim was to learn to kitesurf with a hydrofoil board, which went really well. However, since the wind only picked up at midday and died off about 5 pm, I was left with plenty of time to do other things.
There are only so many books one can read, so I started jogging down to the end of the beach and back when the wind dropped off, a 5 km round trip. Away from the village it was deserted, and I’d stop off for a skinny-dip-bodysurf session on the way back – possibly the most liberating experience available! It was on these forays that I noticed a lot of plastic washed up at the high tide line, and as the days went on I started to feel ever more guilty about turning a blind eye to it.
You’ll know what I mean. You see a piece of rubbish. You think about picking it up. But suddenly, all these reasons not to come rushing to the fore; “I don’t want to get my hands dirty – I don’t know where the next bin is – I’m running and I don’t want to carry it – this is one of a thousand other bits…”. The list goes on. Some of these reasons may be justifiable. But there is no avoiding the fact that a conscious decision has been made to leave that piece of rubbish on the beach, to the detriment of the environment. If only you hadn’t seen it!
So, I started taking plastic bags (that I had hoarded from previous transactions) with me. In Ecuador they are still freely given out, and I developed a strong aversion to throwing them away so I had gathered quite a collection. Fortunately, there was enough plastic on the beach to keep me occupied, but not so much as to be completely overwhelmed to the point where it didn’t seem worth bothering.
I found the process particularly cathartic, and it got me thinking about what sort of work I am best suited to. It had a tangible and measurable impact; the bag would slowly get fuller, and I could look behind me and see a clean section of beach (or notice how much I’d missed). The task was beautifully simple; I would meander from piece to piece, my mind wandering, completely absorbed in scanning the sand ahead.
I felt a little bit awkward when I got back to the village. What would people think? I hadn’t seen anyone pick up litter since I’d been in the country, it seemed to be a given that it was always present. I’d snap a quick picture of the bag before surreptitiously depositing it in the bin before I was noticed. I was worried about portraying a boastful ‘I’m more environmentally-minded than you’ vibe within a culture that I wasn’t familiar with. That may seem silly, and perhaps it is, but it came from a place of sensitivity.
On the other hand, I was secretly hoping that my friends at the kite school would notice; it’s a huge privilege to be able to visit these places and engage in leisure that is financially unavailable to much of the local population. It felt appropriate to improve the place for those we shared it with, particularly given so few other demands on our time, and I wanted to make them aware that we could do that. Informing others works towards normalising that behaviour, which is ultimately what needs to happen with regards to many environmental issues. If everybody went around picking up litter, there is a very good chance you’d start doing it too!
At the weekend, lots of people visited from nearby city Manta and the beach was a lot busier. It was interesting to gauge people’s reactions as I passed them on the beach. Some would thank or compliment me, others would give an encouraging comment (a large part of the population are expats who I found easier to understand!), and many wouldn’t make eye contact at all, thus (understandably) avoiding the awkward interaction that arises from the fact that I’m picking up litter that they are walking straight past.
Alongside much unidentifiable detritus, the most common item was the humble bottle cap. Perhaps their geometry and size makes them resistant to fragmenting, but I picked up hundreds upon hundreds. Plastic cutlery and lollipop sticks also featured regularly. Worst of all was that many of these articles had degraded to what we now call micro-plastics – tiny beads numbering in the millions, that are really too small for a pair of hands to practically do anything about. During my time here, baby turtles were hatching on the beach and crawling down to the sea, and it’s easy to imagine how these little beads could be mistaken for a tasty snack.
I really enjoyed the daily litter pick. I’d like to think that the beach was significantly cleaner than when I found it, the odd marine creature might have been saved, and I may have implanted in some people the vague notion that picking up litter was a possibility. It also gave me time to dwell further on our impact on the environment and what needs to change in order that we avert our current course towards devastation.
A few weeks later, my sister Sara suggested we formulate some sort of festive challenge for when we reconvened back home in Torquay over Christmas. My initial thoughts were for an overnight north to south of Dartmoor or some elegant logistical canoe/run/cycle combination, but in time my mind drifted back to Ecuador.
Why not, on every one of the 12 days that we’re back, go to a different Torbay beach and pick up all the rubbish? Instead of 12 days of Christmas, it’ll be 12 days of plastic! Never mind the environmental benefit, it’s a great excuse to revisit all the beautiful beaches in Torbay that might otherwise feel like too much effort, particularly after a significant Christmas dinner. Shortly thereafter it occurred to me that there might not actually be any to pick up; the prevailing wind is offshore and the good residents of Torbay may already have done the job. But there’s only one way to find out!
So, Sara and I will be hitting up a different beach every day from 19th – 30th December (inclusive). We’ll be relaying time, meeting place and logistics via social media the previous evening for those that would like to join. There will also be swimming opportunities for those that dare! You can follow the action on Facebook and Instagram and look out for the hashtag #12daysofplastic!