Ocean Plastic: The Myth of the Pristine Beach
I love to travel. LOVE it. New places, smells, foods, sights? Awesome. Sign me up.
I’m lucky to have traveled more than usual this past year: I languished in a lazy river in Florida, did a photoshoot in a mountain stream in Asheville, swam in a waterfall in Costa Rica, jumped into a Cenote, let weird tiny fish nibble my toes, and danced on a beachside rooftop in Mexico.
I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. I would do it all over again immediately - save for my first jump off that ledge into the cenote. I butt-flopped (that’s not a typo, it’s like a belly flop but cheeks first) into that water and gave myself the mother of all wedgies. It hurt like the dickens and probably traumatized some Italian tourists. It’s why I’m making this face the second time I jumped.
Anyhow. I’ve seen some incredible water this year. Some breathtaking waterfalls. Some stunning beaches. And I’m about to ask you to care, per last post.
I love Costa Rica. It’s a gorgeous country filled with warm, environmentally conscious people and mouth-watering food, and a culture I want to know everything about. It is genuinely worth the tourist hype… save for the howler monkeys, which are the drunk frat boys of the jungle. Not only do they make sounds like they’re competing for the title of Most Constipated Animal on Planet Earth, they also will intentionally TRY to pee on or throw poop at you. VERY RUDE.
(As an aside: we made a concerted effort to be reduced-waste tourists, as you might remember from my Traveling Greener post. If you are traveling and trying to reduce your impact, I’ll also add that Sophie over at The Green Walnuts wrote a thoughtful post on reducing your environmental impact when flying.)
When we were in Costa Rica, we went to a tiny beach you could allegedly only access by boat. It was beautiful. I posted a picture on Instagram and Facebook, and frankly I’ve felt conflicted ever since then. The picture I posted was a wide angle photo, designed to show the crystal water, the blue of the sky, the untamed jungle. What it didn’t show? Ocean plastic in Costa Rica: the blobs of micro-plastics, the hundreds of plastic lighters, the shattered single-use bottles, the lone ice cube tray, the contact lens solution with the labels peeled off from the sea.
These items washed up here. They weren’t dropped here. Much of this beach trash that washed up was utterly unrecognizable, chewed up pieces of plastic that have been in the water for quite some time, floating around the globe. I picked up two plastic bags of trash and took them out on the boat with me. Because I am That Girl, and out of shits to give about it.
We went to Mexico, another country with an incredible culture I'm absolutely smitten with, and the entire trip was something out of a dream... granted a dream filled with positively addictive street churros, smoky tequila, and a hotel room accidentally next to the oonciest club you’ve ever heard in your life. Justin Beiber remixes until 3:45 a.m. - who doesn't want that?
We went to Tulum. Tulum, the land of yoga retreats, of white sand beaches, of ancient ruins. I loved being a tourist there, and I loved the Mayan ruins and that stunning beach at its base. Then we turned the corner at the site to find an area roped off as a protected area for sea turtles. This is what it looked like. This is the ocean plastic of Tulum. This is 100 feet from the "pristine beach" we all come to see.
The pristine beaches you do see? They’re pristine because people are cleaning them up. The beaches we saw in Costa Rica near towns had daily litter pick ups organized by the local surf shops. The pristine beach around the corner in Tulum, the one I stood in front of for photos? Look around you. You’ll see men with bags and litter picks quietly clearing the way for your dream vacation or yoga retreat. I guess Tulum's ocean plastic swamping sea turtle nesting grounds doesn't make a great postcard. (Really want to know what’s behind the curtain? Read this Newsweek article, if you have the stomach for it.)
What is the point of keeping people off these sea turtle nesting grounds, when this is the welcome we’re giving them to the world?
You’ll notice I’ve said we. Not they.
I love Asheville, would move there in a heartbeat. Remember when I started this blog? It started with me fishing cups, cellophane wrappers, bottles, and flip flops out of a mountain stream in a protected forest in Asheville.
I love Charleston. I love Charleston so much I just did back to back litter pickups with the Charleston Waterkeeper, and picked up some sort of bubonic plague on my ankle from wading through ditch water. I’m totally NOT on WebMD three times a day looking up what it might be.
The first litter pick up pulled more than two dumpsters’ worth of trash out of the Ashley River, including tires, styrofoam, and plastic bottles. I personally picked up one used condom with the litter pick (an accident, I screamed for about ten seconds straight), one refrigerator drawer, and about seventy-five plastic straws. Junga pulled a TV out of the weeds. We were so swamped with trash, we only managed to get about one-eighth of what was there: 9 giant burlap coffee bags of garbage.
Then we did a litter pick up in my neighborhood the next day, which almost made me cry. Remember when I started Compost and Cava? When I did a case study on litter in East Oak Forest in the 5 block radius around my house? The waste flow of 7 days of 5 blocks of East Oak Forest, Charleston, SC below. Recyclables divided to the pile on the left.
Last weekend 150 people turned out and removed a whopping 2,500 pounds of litter from MY NEIGHBORHOOD on its way to the ocean.
(Numbers taken from Charleston Waterkeeper's Facebook page.) We pulled tires, basketballs, to-go cups, pens, markers, and an entire bed frame out of the ditches by my house. Two blocks from my house.
So who’s doing this littering?
People and companies that don’t care, sure. But it’s also me, every time I throw trash into a trash can without a lid, and it’s windy the next day. It’s you, when you throw that plastic bag into the bed of your pick up truck. It’s your mom, when the recycling company doesn’t quite get everything from the truck into the bin, and then it rains. It’s all of us, when we walk by garbage in the street, sidewalk, or parking lot 40 times a day.
Does all your trash make it to the landfill? Where do you think the garbage we picked up was headed during the next big rain? Into the Ashley River? Which flows into the Charleston Harbor?
There is an estimated 7 tons of plastic trash in the Charleston Harbor at any given moment (along with the 2.4 million gallons of raw sewage we’ve recently been adding to the mix, Charleston), all making its way out to sea.
Where you are taking your baby to splash around on Saturday.
How long is it until it reaches Tulum? Or Costa Rica?
We have a problem, y’all.
And it is a We Problem.
Hopefully you know me well enough to know I wouldn't leave you here on Compost and Cava on that dismal of a note. Now that we've faced the gravity of the global problem of the way we live, I want to introduce you to some people who are doing something about it. Follow their journey, join them, or show them some love, y'all!
Part of me wants to apologize for bringing this much gravity onto Compost and Cava. This isn't a fun read, is it? I couldn't think of a way to tidy or "funny" it up. This is the world we all live in. And I'm asking you to care. Start with your neighborhood, your lunch break, whatever. I picked up 5 plastic bottles on my run yesterday. They're only 5 bottles. But they're 5 less landing on some pristine beach across the world a year from now. And I'm really proud of that.
Meet Natalie. She's on a one-woman mission to clean our seas, starting in England.
Meet Koos. Garbage-grabbing gent in the Netherlands. I love his lunch break pick ups. Five minutes can make such a difference.