Palm trees, Pacific waves. Summer sun blazing and playas for days.
Welcome to Juanchaco. Home to some of the most breathtaking natural beauty, and a lesser known spot off Colombia’s growing tourist trail, in low season there’s almost no international visitors to be seen, with most opting for the crystal clear waters of the country’s Caribbean coast — from Capurganá to Cartagena.
But it’s a scene that would make any tourist’s stomach turn while sipping sheepishly at his perfectly packed plastic bottle of beverage. For with its rustic wooden shacks and beaches piled with rubble and the discards of society, looking from afar, aside from the upright palms, you’d be forgiven for thinking this small fishing town had been hit by a storm.
Juxtaposed against a jawdropping jungle backdrop, this is just a raw representation of the stark reality of the irony of modern ‘civilisation’.
But after 8 months working in Medellin and exploring Colombia, and looking to disconnect from the madness of modern life, this was a place with which I grew a particular connection during the few weeks I was there clearing the beaches, getting to know the community and learning about their situation.
Juanchaco: a microscope image of our global plastic plague
It’s mid morning when we draw into port. After 15 sleepless hours via the windy roads and choppy Pacific waves via Cali and humble port town Buenaventura, the static wooden shacks of this small fishing village are a welcoming sight. Colourful and characterful, their rustic nature telling, I later discovered, of their inevitable destruction by the sea in the years to come.
You see, ‘the sea.. it has a heart.. it gets angry with all this rubbish.. the waves keep coming, slowly swallowing up the town…” says friend Caballito in his Costenan drawl
Empty of tourists, its humbly beautiful brown sand beaches are instead piled with a plethora of plastic, polystyrene, toothbrushes, liquor bottles, tin cans, used nappies, toys.. The detritus of society, mixed in amongst the driftwood, as far as the eye can see: parts of people’s lives used, left, scattered, unwanted. Reflected off the islands opposite, a fresh batch is brought up by the tide twice daily like clockwork, from other Colombian and Central American cities — particularly poorer neighbourhoods without infrastructure for waste removal where, like Juanchaco, litter also lines the streets.
“This is the best it’s been in years” I was reassured. Juanchaco’s citizens have also grown accustomed to the lack of water, the aqueduct constructed 4 years ago that has since sat unusable meaning a reliance on rainwater — the much awaited downpour I experienced an apparent tradeoff with electricity supply and cell signal.
Disconnected from the digital world and its distractions I fell into the rhythm of getting up at 5 to meditate or run on the beach each morning. Alone with the awe inspiring cliffs and usual sea of plastic, one day I was forced to stop. Exasperated. The early light revealing.. I kid you not… a television set.
Globally, we produce 300 million tons of plastic every year, 78 percent of which is NOT reclaimed or recycled. This means an estimated 12.7 million tonnes of plastic seeping into the seas each year.
With limited access to technology, the kids are constantly out on the streets, on their bicycles, conjuring up creative games, playing * and climbing trees for coconuts.. but were soon convinced to being roped in to help with the clear up. Even the military offered their help. Still, sack in hand, amid the sea of human waste mixed in deviously with the driftwood, one wonders where on Earth to begin. Starting with the smaller pieces of plastic and polystyrene fish are most likely to eat, we made up songs to keep up morale:
‘Que es lo peor?. Icopor!’
What’s the worst? Polystyrene (of course).
While glass and metals are buried, the rest, including this non-recyclable, non-biodegradable material so fabulously versatile for its few minute-long lifespan, and the epitome of our convenience culture, is left to the twice daily bonfire ritual on the beach. The constant stench of burning plastic and polystyrene telling of the toxic gases shown by the WHO to cause premature death…
Recycling: just to justify our indulgent lifestyles?
Although recycling offers a tempting, seemingly virtuous and moral alternative, its powers are limited. As Greenpeace recently revealed, only 7% plastic bottles produced by 5 of the 6 biggest soft drink suppliers are recycled. Economically, it is more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than sending it to landfill. Increasingly so, as noted in the New York Times, as a labour-intensive activity that finds itself on the wrong side of two long-term global economic trends — increasing labour costs and lowering value of output materials.
In any case, the efficiency/effectiveness of recycling is mixed, depending on material. According to EPA estimates around 90% of greenhouse benefits come from cardboard, paper and metal, while plastic bottles can even cause a net negative impact depending on water use in washing and contamination with other materials.
But even if ‘effective’, we are talking about practices/products that spread across the world, spanning sprawling cities with no waste systems whatsoever.
Bachata blasting from the bars from 6am each morning, life goes on as normal in Juanchaco. I met several people wanting to see change, the recurring theme of conversation however being that the culture just won’t. With plastic bags a right with every purchase, as in most of Colombia and the rest of the world, the continuing disconnect between point of use and its ending up on the beaches, and lack of alternatives, the cycle is endless, especially with more and more packaged goods imported from the city as the culture of cultivation dwindles.
These lifestyle changes are what the foundation EcoPazifico is trying to target, teaching the kids of Juanchaco the impacts on the environment, and steps they can take to change the situation — minimising use of disposables and plastic bags by replacing them with reusables.
But this is just a drop in the ocean, the soup of pelagic plastic and chemical sludge that makes up The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a continent wide island itself formed by the North Pacific Gyre polluting countless stunning spots such as the extremely remote Midway Island and its inhabiting bird population, whose dead corpses are found stuffed with plastic.
More than half the world’s turtles and two-thirds of some bird species along Australia’s east coast are being found to have ingested plastics as the toll from pollution mounts, a leading CSIRO researcher said. Now found to be polluting 73% of British beaches, the problem is on our doorstep, and even in our food.
The invisible plastic plague hitting our plates
While awareness of microbeads is gaining traction, with the US banning their use in cosmetics in 2015, being responsible for 2% of microplastics, the problem is far more widespread. As much as 40% of the microfibers for instance found in rubber tyres, cosmetics, synthetic clothes (especially yoga, athletic wear, polyester fleeces and those super-snuggly blankets) are leaching into waterways with every wash, and we’re even breathing them in.
With plastic production almost doubling each year, plastic is so ingrained in the food chain, accumulating up it even, we are now ingesting it ourselves.
Although relatively little research has been done, we already know that microplastics pose a potentially serious threat. As shown by the University of Exeter (also find out more here) they will never decompose, instead breaking down into smaller pieces with a larger collective surface area that picks up toxic material and viruses, transferring the chemicals to and from marine life.
This is the cost of our convenience-orientated consumer culture. Made up of millions of seemingly ordinary everyday actions. Actions that can, and must, be changed…
By 2050, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish” it was announced at the World Economic Forum last year.
“The Solution to Pollution is Dilution”
.. My father once joked. I never listened long enough to hear what happens when you reach saturation point. And I don’t think I want to.
Akin to aforementioned microbead mayhem, possible solutions include a ban on plastic bags and single-use disposables. Delhi’s move to ban plastic disposables was an ambitious move against the plastic sludge inundating India, but business is seemingly going on as normal. Moves like banning microbeads in cosmetics (0.01% to 4.1% of the total microplastics) and Johnson & Johnson’s switch from plastic to paper cotton buds (a superfluous product in itself), in Europe only, are also symbolic, and largely up to mass customer complaints and petitions.
Other alternatives are bulk product stores and incentivising use of reusable containers, as well as a Deposit Return System for plastic bottles (already in place in Germany, supported in Scotland and proposed by the UK government). Subsidising recycling especially of metals, and also a general consensus amongst environmentalists being a ‘carbon tax’ on rubbish produced per household per ton.
But while consumer consciousness is growing, we cannot rely on governments and businesses alone. As consumers we need to educate ourselves of the increasingly evident impacts we are having, and take action to reduce them.
Things that are so simple as:
Ditch the disposables
· Shun the straw!
· Carry your own reusable (canvas) bag, coffee cup, water bottle, spork, metal straw, if necessary.
Question what you buy
· We spend millions on endless chemical-packed, chemical packaged products
· Buy food products with none, less and/or decomposable packaging — there’s never been more reasons to FRESH fruit and veg
· Don’t buy at all (unnecessary things, cling film, earbuds, soft drinks, meat…)
· Replace with natural alternatives… endless beauty products can be replaced with natural soap (face, body & hair) coconut oil, bicarbonate of soda shampoo and apple cider vinegar for conditioner
· Toxic washing products — vinegar again highly effective (see tips here)
· Grow your own fruit and veg (vertical gardens, the future of food security) recycle and compost all you can
· Minimalise your wardrobe: recycle, upcycle & donate the rest. A soul cleansing experience to say the least.
· …even if only to go back to the charity shop and buy second hand.
· Natural fibres where possible — cotton the most common.
To be part of the change and get plenty of consciously cool/actually accessible tips join the We Collective movement.
‘Out of sight, out of mind’
They might seem a world away but each of our everyday actions is having a huge impact, now. Sustainable solutions are not just for future generations, they’re for us too.
This is only the Great Pacific Tip of the Iceberg, one of five garbage patches across the world, countless warning signs that we need to change, and an experience that will stay with me forever.
House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee. “Environmental Impact of Microplastics” Fourth Report of Session 2016–17, 20 Jul. 2016.
NOAA Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R). “How Big Is the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”? Science vs. Myth” Web. 7 Feb. 2013.
“The Reign Of Recycling Is NOT Over: A Roundup of Responses To John Tierney.” Great Forest. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2016.Tierney, John. “The Reign of Recycling.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 03 Oct. 2015. Web. 29 Mar. 2016.
University of Exeter. Written evidence submitted by Professor Tamara Galloway, Professor Brendan Godley, Dr Ceri Lewis, Dr Andrew Watts, Dr Matthew Cole, Ms Sara Nelms and Ms Emily, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter. Apr. 2016