Week 4: Paying more attention to litter.
Updated: Mar 31, 2020
There are around 620,000 kilometres of coastline on this planet, according to latest NASA figures.
70% of the planet is covered with seas and oceans, and around a quarter of all humans on the planet live within 100 kilometres of a coast.
Our coasts are where one world meets another. Everything in the sea or even close to the sea, seems to look different, smell different, taste different.
Take a walk along a beach, and it feels different under your feet. In bare feet, the feeling of sand between your toes, or feeling the tug of the tides around your ankles is a feeling that can take us to nostalgic places. Our childhoods are often full of memories of hunting for pebbles, of examining rock-pools, of long walks and big skies.
Taking a walk along shorelines today however, and you might start to see some unfamiliar and unwelcome sights, that do not match this romantic description. Cigarette butts, bottle tops, flip flops, and worse. Even the cleanest beaches, cannot keep up with continual deposit of this flotsam, as relentless as the tides..
It’s not right, but despite the statistics of our overall proximity to beaches, it sometimes takes holidaying near a beach or in a beach resort far away from home, for us to be mindful and notice. I speak perhaps personally, and as someone from the UK in saying that I'm less likely to notice rubbish on a broad, windswept, British sand plain, than I am to notice a dirty beach whilst on holidays. But on the white powder of a tropical island, the pebbles of a Mediterranean paradise or the cove just around the corner - the problems are the same.
Lift your gaze from the beach to the skies, and its likely you’ll see somewhere the criss-crossing vapour trails of aeroplanes, taking many of us from our cold Winters or temperate Summers, in search of sun, and inevitably the beach. We are one of these families this week, taking a Winter holiday of family time. And from this week I am going to try harder to pay attention to litter.
I have to accept there is a certain irony and hypocrisy in taking a flight, and then trying to make a planetwise choice. Searching for Winter sun is indeed good for our individual mental health, but is terrible for the planet. Flights for our family, account for around 6% of our annual carbon footprint. This is only meaningful if you compare it to averages, but for the purposes of this project we accept that any percentage, or any number of flights we take right now each year, regardless of where we are on a scale, could be reduced.
That said, planes have personally given us and our family many advantages over our lives. We have experienced cultures, learned from overseas colleagues, found pleasure and happiness in our lives that we would not have achieved without the ability that planes have had to make the World smaller and allow populations and ideas to be more fluid across international boundaries.
But at the same time and in the bigger picture, it is also very clear that we need to stop digging things up and burning them to facilitate the advancement of the human race or our own pleasure, otherwise there will not be a human race, and there will not be a planet to enjoy, anymore.
We also pay to offset the carbon generated by our plane travel, and at the individual level this is a great idea. The kind of initiatives that carbon footprint organisations support are a big step forward.
However, even this feels somehow like it addresses a symptom and not a cause. If you extrapolate the idea of a carbon tax to a dystopian level, and accept that our guilt can be eased by paying around the cost of a fast-food meal to offset each flight, it becomes simply a conscience tax, or at the largest scale a penance for corporations and the rich. Eventually, there will not be enough carbon initiatives, or enough time to find new ones, enough space to plant new trees or to carry out other initiatives, to replace the damage we are doing even with all the funds in the world to support it.
In other words, if we continue to allow large scale travel to continue as it is, and simply believe we can pay to make the problem go away, then we are at best in denial and at worst complicit in another of the great economic tricks of the modern world. Pay some money, and someone else will fix it.
Anyway, I digress.
Our challenge was to pay more attention to litter, starting this week but continuing permanently. On holiday, this simply means taking a morning out to enjoy some solitude, but also to carry out a beach clean as I went.
The idea was straightforward – take a spare bag, and then whenever I walked past something that should not have been there, bag it, and then when back at our hotel we separated the items into the recycling bins so that it ended up in the normal recycling system. It perhaps sounds insanitary, but as long as you don't pick up, or take care when picking up anything that looks sharp or hazardous, and as long as you wash your hands afterwards, it is something that anyone can take part in.
So how did we do?
I have to admit, that the first attempt wasn’t a great illustration of what you might see on the news. Litter was there, but was sporadic or clustered rather than consistently present.
The primary reason is because of the efforts that are going on already. Local communities in regions where tourism contributes in a big way to the economy, and those who run local businesses along the shorelines, are very engaged in the care and attention of the fragile boundary between the land the oceans already. There are regular voluntary groups in the resort we were visiting and others around the world, and in researching and talking to people as we went, I discovered that volunteers or local people may have bagged somewhere in the region of 10-20kg of litter each morning already, before the tourists have arrived and after the first low tide of the day. Less regular cleans will contribute even more when they take part along beaches, in popular dive locations, or places where people regularly surf, swim, or snorkel.
These are easy to look up on Facebook, and although there wasn't one going on whilst we were here, it's something we'll look up wherever we go from now on.
Groups like this win the battle each morning, but in the knowledge that by mid-afternoon, and by the next morning, the tide and the war will turn against them again.
That being said, although we didn’t collect much, that is perhaps not the point. I learned more by talking to people whilst doing it, and feel that anything we can do is a contribution and a positive step. We might complain about a hair in our food at a holiday restaurant, yet we regularly walk on a beach past styrofoam waste that might choke a seabird or a cigarette packet that will end up in the stomach of a sea creature.
I also learned that perhaps to really help, you have to walk to that next cove along, or that next town - because the help of volunteers can only stretch to their number and their capacity. So the next day, walking a little off the beaten track and later in the day, I discovered that the familiar, neat line of trash at the point that the tide turns returned. By hunting around the back of buildings rather than the front, I found many more cigarette butts and food cartons.
This time I managed to collect two full bags.
If we all made more effort, to what we can see, against what we do now, I believe that we can all contribute to changing this situation. We all know that we should take our littler home. We have all walked past someone else’s litter and not picked it up. We might think that by making this change, we are not making more than a tiny dent in one of the oceanic garbage patches, or attacking this issue in a meaningful way.
But I believe we are all connected. Our little changes do have an impact directly, they have an impact attitudinally, and ideologically. I might have picked up a few bagfuls on a beach in Europe today. But if everyone did this, everywhere in the World, every day, it would have a big impact not only in reducing our ocean waste but also making people think twice before extinguishing their cigarette in the sand or tossing their empty plastic glass over the side of a boat or a promenade.
Broaden this horizon further, and consider that we don’t all live near a beach that might have an all-inclusive resort in close proximity, or might not be a regular route for walkers – and the impact increases. In the UK, there have begun to be many initiatives for clean beaches, and it is incredible to see groups of volunteers on cold February mornings, cleaning beaches for no other reason than their collective belief they can make a difference. We have started to see beach clean stations becoming a more common site along shorelines, and by simply searching on the Internet for beach cleans, you can discover advice for lone beach cleans or 2-minute beach cleans, you can find regular, organised mini beach cleans that might be happening, and find general help and advice that is far more credible than our thoughts and ideas.
Extend this idea from the beaches, to the streets and the fields, and it can have the same impact. We all walk, run, exercise our dogs, and when we do it we all walk past litter that might end up somewhere it is not supposed to be. The stomach of a creature, a river, in the ground. Everything we pick up is a small victory for our planet, and is a way of being more planetwise.
And finally, even if there are those amongst us that do not believe that climate change is real. Or that the climate is changing despite of humans, rather than because of humans. Even if we think this, isn't it just better to have a cleaner, more pleasant environment and planet to discover? Isn't it just better to be kind to each other by clearing up after ourselves, to be more sustainable in our thinking and take our litter home? If the incentive is not the planet, then can't it just be simple kindness to each other, and kindness to the plants, animals, fungi, and other living things that we share our planet with?