Some years ago an elfin man approached me as I walked along a boulevard in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He could see I was puzzled and wanted to help. What did I need? Holding out my handfull of trash, I pantomimed dumping it, then shrugged my shoulders and swept my hand in a semicircle to indicate my search for a trash bin. He pointed to the street pavement. No! I shook my head. Yes! he replied with a nod. Springing forward, he grabbed the trash from my hand and threw it on top of a pile at the curb then, flashing a huge grin, turned on his heel and ambled away unconcernedly. Had it not been tossed upon a fetid, stinking garbage heap I would have picked it back up.
Later that same afternoon I came back to the same neighborhood after a day of traipsing around old Saigon and noticed a woman clad in a green smock and conical straw hat pushing a two-wheeled cart. Every few feet she stopped and bent to the asphalt with her hand broom of twigs to sweep up piles of trash and deposit them in her bin. The pile that had horrified me earlier in the day was long gone, and I suddenly realized that my trash was her job security.
Flash forward to 2010 and my four months of travel around Mexico. A beach bum from way back, I was stunned by the dazzling white sands and crystalline turquoise waters of the Yucatan. The beaches of Tulum and Playa del Carmen are among the most magnificent in the world. As I traveled further south to a largely undeveloped part of the peninsula, mile after mile of exquisite beaches stretched as far as I could see. Unfortunately, so did piles of rubbish. Shampoo bottles, shoes, needles, plastic containers of all kinds had washed up just above the high tide mark; where there were no houses or resorts there were no efforts to clean it up and in places the trash was a foot deep. At the southernmost point of the Yucatan I rolled into Xcalak, a sleepy town best known for its diving and deep sea fishing, and put down roots for a few days.
I brought up the subject of litter with the managers of Casa de Suenos Resort, who insisted that it did not originate in Mexico. Although some claim it comes from cruise ships that dump their trash at sea, current regulations for the cruise ship industry require weighing of the trash when ships return to port. Using available data about the average number of pounds of trash generated per person at sea, a formula is applied according to how many passengers were aboard. If the load is light, the cruise line is subject to severe financial penalties. The more commonly accepted explanation is that currents wash trash up from Central and South America and as evidence that the theory is sound, the resort manager produced a yellow hard hat he had picked up on the beach. Scrawled across the front were the words “Panama Canal.”
For the past several months I have been back in Asia, where the problem is as severe as anywhere in the world. To a large degree I have learned to look past the garbage; though I still cringe each time someone leans across me to toss their trash out of a bus window, I find myself reasoning that even the plate is made from biodegradable palm leaves. Rather than being appalled, I am Continue reading