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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.