According to the World Economic Forum, there will be more plastic than fish in terms of weight in the world’s oceans by 2050. The world is throwing the equivalent of a garbage truck of plastic waste into the oceans every minute.
While I was living in the U.S. I heard about the dangers of plastic in the ocean and read about the Great Pacific garbage patch — a huge floating mess of debris and plastic.
Tons of plastic debris float on the ocean’s surface or wash up on shores every year, much of it being eaten by fish and shore birds. Toxin-containing plastic pieces are eaten by jellyfish, which are then eaten by larger fish. Many of these fish are then consumed by humans. Plastic in the oceans also contribute to the spread of invasive species that attach themselves to floating plastic in one region and drift long distances to colonize in other ecosystems.
On the other hand, there are solutions to our plastic problem, like recycling and using less plastic and, worldwide, there are dozens of projects designed to clean up the mess on both land and sea.
With all this in mind, I wondered where all this plastic was coming from. In the U.S., recycling has become common and roads and beaches didn’t seem to be accumulating plastics in the quantities I was hearing about.
When I moved to Ecuador, I thought I might see the mess I had been reading about, this littering and over abundance of plastic waste. Sure, in Cuenca, salchipapa containers and plastic bags are used all the time so some littering is not uncommon. But recycling is so common in the city that you can buy bags designated for your recycling at any place that sells garbage bags. Most people either drink water from the tap or from refillable bottles. The cokes and beers can easily be purchased in returnable glass bottles. And the plastic that doesn’t make it to the recycle truck is often filtered out of trash cans and off the sidewalks by citizens looking to recycle it for a little money. The city of Cuenca has trash pick-up and street cleaners. For the most part, it stays very clean.
Then, I moved to the coast. That’s where I found the plastic. Bottles, plastic to-go containers, jugs, and bags cover many parts of the beaches. Plastic oil bottles float on top of the waves. Ripped pieces of plastic cling to plants and flutter in the ocean breeze.
I step off the sand and cross the street where I find vacant lots carpeted in trash — much of which is plastic. As I drive the highway from my coastal town to Guayaquil, the shoulder of the roads and the empty fields are colorful with pink containers, green bottles, rainbow striped bags, and blue water jugs.
In Guayaquil, bottled water is sold cheap and everywhere. Vendors walk the streets, line the sidewalks, and jump on buses with water to sell. After all, you can’t drink the tap water there. That means everyone is buying bottled water. To top it off, lunches are sold in plastic to-go containers by vendors on the streets and on the buses. Trash covers yards around houses while slopes along the roads look like they’ve experienced a plastic landslide.
The trash in the coastal towns easily ends up in ocean, but the trash pile I walk past as I cross a bridge over one of Guayaquil’s rivers ends up in the ocean. Ecuador’s largest city is on the Guayas River, which empties into the Gulf of Guayaquil, an inlet of the Pacific Ocean.
I asked some young adults in Guayaquil if all this trash — mostly plastic — is a problem. They all agreed that it is. “Why does it happen?” I asked. That’s when the differences of opinion went public:
“They don’t have manners.”
“They’re not educated”
“I don’t throw trash on the ground.”
“There’s nowhere else to put it.”
I asked, “Who are ‘they’?” They are, I was told, the uneducated, the rude, the poor, etc.
When I asked how to solve it, the tension in the group only increased:
“Fine litterers heavily.”
“Improve trash pick up.”
“Put them in jail.”
“You’ll put a poor person in jail just because they are uneducated and can’t afford to pay the fine?”
The issue is no doubt a complex one, and often sensitive. Last month, though, the World Economic Forum said the only way to avoid a plastic disaster is to massively improve the economics and uptake of recycling. The forum says that means giving people incentives to collect plastic garbage and recycle, use reusable packaging, and encourage countries to drastically improve their waste collection infrastructure.
We don’t always think about where the trash goes. Living in my clean town in the U.S. and then walking the streets of Cuenca, I doubted if we even had a problem.
Now, the trash is just outside my front door and it covers the beach across the street. I watch my step as I go out to the waves, and I sometimes have to carry my son over the trash border at the shoreline.
Now, I’m living personally with the problem.