Have you ever traveled abroad and marveled at the pristine beauty of a beach or lake? That is, until you got up close and realized that there was rubbish everywhere.
It destroys the serenity a bit, doesn’t it?
While living in remote Sulawesi in Indonesia, I traveled with a local friend and her family to the small island on which she grew up.
Whilst enjoying a wonderful lunch of fresh fish and rice, my friend pointed to the piles of rubbish next to the lake just beside us.
“The Government does not clean up after the people” she said, and then proceeded to throw a water bottle on top of the pile.
It was hard to believe what I had just seen, but after looking around, I realized that there wasn’t much else she could have done. There were no trash cans anywhere on the island.
This is an unfortunately common story, told in many places. No effective rubbish removal or collection means there is nowhere for it to go.
In some cultures and areas of the globe, the rate of industrialization and the impact of the modern world has had huge effects. Where before everything was wrapped in natural materials, such as banana leaves, and bags were made from woven plant materials, now everything is constructed of plastic.
And it doesn’t break down.
Where before simply discarding a banana leaf onto the side of the road was environmentally conscious, as it would break down, the same habits can’t apply to plastic.
Witnessing environmental degradation overseas was what inspired me to start working towards saving the environment and writing about it, too.
While studying in Greece during university, I traveled to the stunning Greek Islands. Each morning I witnessed a new slew of rubbish that had washed in on the tide to ruin the otherwise beautiful beach.
I was astounded, and every part of me wanted to spend all day picking up each piece of rubbish, but I knew that it was a fruitless effort.
Although I have become more accustomed to seeing the rubbish throughout my travels, that urge to clean up everything in sight has not disappeared.
As a savvy and environmentally conscious traveler, how do you cope when faced with so much rubbish and pollution overseas?
1. Remember that it’s not your problem to solve
Being an eco-conscious person can make it difficult to face mountains of rubbish when traveling, especially when you can see that it causes health, environmental, and sanitation problems.
Cows feed among the rubbish in India. Image from Wikipedia.
The main thing to remember, however, as blunt and hard as it may seem, is that it is not your problem to solve.
Unless you plan to stay and work on a project with the locals, cleaning up the rubbish, for instance, there is little impact you can make. You are temporarily passing through, so try to see past the rubbish to the beauty.
2. Don’t add to the problem
That being said, although there may be nowhere else for the rubbish to go, you should not add to the problem.
If you’re hiking, for example, don’t throw your water bottle into the river just because you’ve seen others do it. Take your rubbish with you, and dispose of it later once you’ve found somewhere appropriate.
3. Avoid plastic
It’s simple: In countries where plastic waste is already a major problem, try to avoid adding to it.
Avoid purchasing plastic water bottles, or reuse the same one. Say no to plastic bags at markets and shops, and search for food items with the least amount of packaging.
4. Remember that sometimes rubbish can be a livelihood
Whilst I was living in Indonesia, I came to realize that each day the rubbish that was piling up in the streets seemed to magically disappear.
In some countries rubbish collection and especially plastic collection is big business. Many people who have no other sources of income collect and sort through the rubbish piles.
There are also groups of people who collect and up-cycle aluminum cans and plastic to make jewelry and trinkets to sell on the streets.
It may not be a long-term solution to the problem, but at least it is helping some people to eat.
5. Take 3 pieces of rubbish with you
There is a rubbish revolution happening in Australia right now. It’s called “Take 3 for the Beach,” and it encourages visitors to the beach to collect three pieces of rubbish and take them along.
I love the message that this campaign is advocating, and I think it is a great ethos to use in everyday life, anywhere in the world! If you know of trash cans or places where you can dispose of rubbish correctly, then consider collecting a few pieces you see each day. This has helped me when in Greece to feel as though I am doing something towards protecting the environment.
Seeing rubbish piled up on roadsides or clogging up waterways is an unfortunate reality to traveling. But don’t let it affect your travels negatively; do what you can, and don’t forget to look beyond the dirt to the wonderful country and people.
*This article originally was published on Travel Go Girl online magazine as part of the EcoBackpacker column that I write for them. You can read the original here*