Trash Talk


Written by Fidgit

This walk has changed how I relate to the waste we throw out. From toilet paper to tin cans. Much of the Southern Cone has banned plastic bags. We personally try to limit the use of plastic by bringing our Hyperlite Mountain Gear Sacks with us to resupply, filling those instead of plastic bags.
What do you do to engage with garbage?

I had a waste success along the Inca Trail. Amidst the multiple groups around our own, there was a smoker. As we sat at one of the passes, he lit up, burned it down, and pinched the butt into a wedge of rocks. I could sympathize with the shame and defiance of being the outsider in a crowd. Of wanting to bury it. I asked him if he would mind terribly if I packed his cigarette butt out.

“Okay. Yeah. Thank you,” he picked it out and handed it to me.
Two days later, at the Sun Gate, he was again smoking. But this time when he was done, he pulled out a small bag and packed out his own butt.
I was delighted.

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Haul of trash from one day on the Sacred Inca Trail.

I have long been aware of the trash I find along trails. It is easy enough to pack a pair of gloves and a plastic bag and fill it while walking.
Take that bag home and discard it.
Repeat.
Repeat.
Repeat.

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An abandoned section of the Inca Trail re-purposed as a local dump.

Still, none of that means that trash has stopped existing. Around the time we were walking through Chile, Greta had begun a project called #whatsinthebag. As she explains in a first blog post about it:

This is my attempt to start the conversation. To peak your curiosity, and mine as well, and to raise our collective consciousness of the stuff that we consume and discard every single day that we live and breathe. Let’s talk about it- the what, the why, the how. Let’s consider what it is made of, where it has come from and where it will go when we are finished with it. Because everything goes somewhere. There is no “away” to throw it to.

She then kept a visual chronicle of that month. It set off ripples.
It was a pivoting point in my journey.

One particular campsite in Chile, on a difficult morning, raised my ire. Littered with beer cans and liquor bottles. They were stuffed into trees, scattered on the ground, thrown into a shallow well. It took less than 10 minutes to pick them all up and a morning carrying a seeping, jangling sack tied to my pack to the next small village.

I was wrought with righteous indignation.

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One of my favorite pieces of trash I’ve collected. My friend Babyface.

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The day Babyface got a hat.

We breakfasted with a kind family. Eventually I stepped outside, photographed my haul of trash, then asked if I could throw it away.

“Of course of course!” she was so eagerly kind, “we can bury it with the rest of our trash.” It was a 2m deep pit just off the side of their property. First the dogs and chickens would pick it over, then, eventually once the pit was full, it would be covered and another dug.

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Trash pig in Bolivia.

I was disappointed in us as a species. “This is not enough!” I thought, “why, back in the cities, in the U.S. we would . . . ”
My thinking hitched. Pieces tumbled into place. I realized we do the same thing.

The only difference is that we pay for the privilege to not have to see or acknowledge what happens after we have “done our part.”

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South Americans have come up with an interesting way to re-purpose trash, by using it to make shrines for saints.

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Like this refrigerator shrine to Gauchito Gil.

So, I have observed and become more aware of the long term role our refuse plays in our lives. Because it is here, and much of it: plastics, glass, and metals, especially, are here to stay. Greta has also coached me in preserving a gentleness of perspective. To approach with curiosity first. So, I watch the trash. I talk about it.

Many South Americans see it but don’t know what to do with it. They burn what they can. In the high mountain villages, they flush it away in the rivers. Governments erect community toilets over top of the river. We are no different than them in thinking that if it is not in our circle, it is no longer a problem. Except on this walk we follow those rivers. We walk along their shores with the currents and eddies of flotsam and refuse.

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An eddy of trash in the “Sacred River” of Peru.

It has become a joke within the team that we always either enter or depart a city by its dump, official or not. From Punta Arenas, Chile to Abancay, Peru. There is always that stretch where we pull our Buffs over our faces and just move. And observe. The piles of trash. The animals picking through it. The people picking through it. The homes built amidst it. The rivers which flow through it.

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Neon’s feet, after crossing through a river in Argentina.

I have thought about the significance of the Three Rs.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
Many modern products do not consider reduction. This was one of the lines of thinking leveled by an old park guard in central Chile:

“Yes, people here throw a lot of garbage into the forest. I remember when I was a boy, everything came in cloth sacks, or paper bags, especially in Patagonia. There was not plastic as there is now. We would re-use the cloth sacks and the paper would disintegrate or we would use it for fire.
I also remember when having a soft drink or a yogurt was a treat. Something we had maybe once a month. Now the children have these treats many times a day, each in a different little plastic container, which their parents throw out the window. So the child learns to throw it out the window. We litter more because we have more.”

It takes effort, and awareness, and DECIDING to care. Not to look away in shame. I struggle with this as I see many people throw their trash on the ground.
I feel defeated.
But still bend to pick it up and walk it over to the rubbish bin, where available.

I love my friends who are willing to get their hands dirty. Talking with Sean just a few nights ago, his talking about volunteering at a recycling center gives me hope. Got me digging through the trash the next day for recyclable bottles. Means that if I finish this post in time MLE will take me to the recycling center and then we get pretzels.

Let’s not ignore our trash, let’s engage with it.
This is how one comes to understand.
This is how we come to care.
That is how we move forward.

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Trash boat in the Cordillera Real.

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Junker bus half way up a pass in Argentina.

7 thoughts on “Trash Talk

  1. jonathanchristopherperry says:

    Thanks for writing this. I remember studying in Lima, walking to the beach and seeing it covered in trash, plastic, a dead dog, flip flops. It’s mind blowing. I thought such waste was relegated to Latin America, but hiking in WNC, I see trash deposited on the sides of roads in much the same manner. It’s certainly changed me. Thanks again.

  2. cliff rawley says:

    Thanks for your insightful commentary on our human problem with trash, We have soiled the land and the oceans with throw away plastic trash. We need to find a way to do better fast!

  3. bartermcgee says:

    Very insightful commentary on a very real problem. Hope we can change the attitude of billions of people who don’t seem to care about this planet before it is too late!! This well written article will help.

  4. keyworthgraphics says:

    It’s through tears I type my response to this both, heartening, and depressing write up, Fidget. A part of me feels doomed and hopeless, and thinks we’re so far gone as a species the only way out of this is by Mother Nature erasing us from her body forever. And erasing all the mistakes we made during our small stay on her; think global extinction/cataclysm. But another part of me feels enlivened and hopeful that future generations will have their eyes opened wide, and come up with a sustainable way to deal with trash.

    While staying on a small island in the Caribbean for a few months, the first year, we would travel with a 40 gallon plastic trash bag and pick up trash on the island wherever we saw it, which made us feel like good citizens and caretakers of the earth and island. Yet, when we saw where the stuff we picked up wound up (a small landfill on the island with trash overflowing the perimeters into the ocean) felt a horrible sense of futility – a labor in vain if you will.

    Fortunately, the following year we returned to find that the trash problem not only on the streets, but also in the landfill had gotten so much attention that the municipality stepped up and had created a recycling center. There was a noticeable difference from the previous year, in that there was less trash on the streets, and the overflow problem at the landfill had been addressed to the point where stuff was no longer washing into the bay.

    I love, and live by those words you mention the 3 R’s…especially trying hard with the R that stands for REDUCE…no more plastic straws in restaurants, and where I can get away with it, no more plastic lids on cups – coffee, or soft drinks, which yes, I still drink, but with a global awareness of where the stuff goes when I am done with it.

    Don’t get discouraged, and keep doing what you’re doing. I love ya!

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