I didn’t start out writing these articles for Bare Necessities, roughly two months ago now, with much thought about where it was going. I knew that they were to be used on the Bare Necessities website but in terms of direction and set ambitions I had little, if any, plans aside from broadly discussing zero waste as a concept, circular economy methodology and sustainability. I have attempted to stay slightly removed from the main character, leaving things abstract and unnamed despite many of the articles being about my personal experiences and perspectives. However, this week, I am going to change (and promptly revert back and perhaps never return for all subsequent weeks!) to a story that is 100% me. It is a precursor of the next month’s focus and direction.
You see, in July I will be compiling a four part series on plastic waste pollution as part of Bare Necessities focus on Plastic Free July and due to that I would like to provide you with, well, a human interest piece I guess it could be called, on my own beginnings of my current focus on addressing plastic waste pollution. I think it is important for everyone to remember why they first started noticing this issue and remember what proved to be a decisive point where you knew that you wanted to be part of the solution. This type of reflection, I find, helps me to stay positive and optimistic about the situation we are all in.
Everyone has a story about when they first acknowledged the waste crisis, it’s important to share. The more knowledge that is passed around, the more chance there is that we will find enough solutions to resolve the mess we are all in. Feel free to share your story via comments on Bare Necessities Linkedin, Instagram or Facebook pages.
I left my home country, Australia, on the 3rd of January 2011 on a one way ticket to Santiago, Chile. I had been overseas on numerous occasions before but this was the first time that I took such a large leap- a jump from an edge of a cliff not knowing where the bottom was or when I would reach. For the first two and a half months of that year I travelled south through the spectacular Patagonia, over the Andes that forms the border between Chile and Argentina, and north to the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia.
It was March 2011 when I arrived in the town of Uyuni at the completion of a four day jeep ride and there it was. An amazing view, as scenic as all the mountains, plains, volcanoes, orchards, wine groves, cities, parks and lakes I had seen since my arrival in Santiago in January. Right beside the stunning image, though, was a giant pile of waste. It was a piece of the landscape all by itself, as dominant as any volcano or mountain, or the salt flats themselves! I had my camera in my hand as I had for all the months up to that point… You know what I did? I turned slightly to the right and ensured that the pile of waste would not be taken in any way shape or form in my perfect, pristine picture.
I was not an environmentalist in any formal capacity in 2011. It would take many years before I decided to return to Australia again to study and eventually arrive in India where I now address this global problem on a daily basis. Instead, I was a 25 year old who had jumped off from the ledge of a hypothetical cliff earlier that year and wanted nothing more than to continue enjoying the ride. So, I left the waste pile at Uyuni and I arrived a short time later in Peru.
In May 2011 I scaled the Cordillera Blanca in central Peru. I hiked by myself through stunning mountain ranges of green valleys with ice cold water plummeting down from the giants that stood, ice and snow capped, above me. The altitude was extreme, the air was the freshest I had ever breathed, and I ran into trouble and found my way back out of it. All in all I hiked three multi day hikes over 12 days and could barely walk after it, such was the rigour I put my body through. Notably, even up there, so close to the sky, I still remember that there was waste. Once again I did not think it was my problem.
By July of that year I had travelled in Ecuador and undertaken a great, all encompassing loop of Colombia. At the conclusion of my time in Colombia I organised a sail boat ride from Cartagena to Panama City with a stop off at the San Blas Islands, a group of 365 islands and cays off the coast of Panama. And, it was there, many months after I had taken the leap from the hypothetical cliff where I finally allowed my finger to press the small, round, silver button on the top of the black body of my camera. It took in the view of one half of an island covered in waste while the other half lay pristine.
I was still 25 then but something happened, it might have felt at the time that it was an instantaneous event- an acknowledgement that I couldn’t ignore all the waste on the beach- but I know now that the build up occurred for those months around South America. How could I not acknowledge it after seeing it in mountains, rivers and seas? The world was so beautiful but if this situation did not get resolved, I thought, other people would not have the opportunity to see what I had seen- the natural beauty not the waste! I believed at that point that it was my problem to help solve.
Yet, by the time I was standing on the plastic covered San Blas Island, underneath hot tropical sun, I knew that my destination in a few months was Canada, not an immediate move to solve the plastic waste issue. All I had there and then was the first seed of an idea.
For the following couple of months I travelled north through Central America noticing waste in each country I spent time in, whether that was underwater in Honduras or in giant canyons in Mexico. There was no way that I could stop seeing it. Everywhere I turned my eyes were accosted by the sights of waste invading what had originally been a beautiful environment.
From October 2011 to July 2013 I lived and worked in Canada. The country has such a wealth of natural phenomenon whether that is glacial lakes, snow capped peaks, bogs and marshes, or coasts that stretch out toward two different oceans. Yet, there was waste around there too. Likewise in Alaska when I made it there in late July 2013 I saw plastic waste alongside animals and in previously pristine environments. It all seemed too large a problem and I didn’t know what to do.
A plane ride took me east from Alaska, to Scotland. My time there, from July 2013 to March 2015, saw me assessing all of my options and allowed me to reflect about plastic waste in particular. It was there that I decided that I needed to travel home to Australia to formally focus on the issues I saw throughout my travels and attempt to help allow other people to see the beautiful areas I had travelled through. I wanted, desperately, to stop them being ruined by waste. But firstly, I wanted a theoretical background on top of what I had seen on a daily basis to understand the issues in order to find out how I could help. Still though, I was overwhelmed, I did not have a key moment that proved to me that there was no other worthwhile ambition to have- at the time I didn’t even know that I needed one, but it has felt vitally important since.
On the third last day of March 2015, once the decision to return home was made and finalised, I jumped on a bicycle and rode from Edinburgh to Istanbul. The assessment and reflection and drive to help solve this complex problem swarmed around my head as each kilometre ticked by. In my memory I saw the pile of waste in Bolivia again, the canyons filled with floating objects in Mexico, the islands in the Caribbean but the thing that finally, truly, proved to me that I had made the right choice to acknowledge that this global issue was my problem happened after I stepped off my bicycle for the last time.
I was standing on a beach in Turkey watching the waves roll in, one after another under a clear blue Meditteraean sky. The salt air filled my lungs, I had a plane ticket ready to return to Australia to formalise my transition from a former career to one with an environmental focus and I was truly happy. The sun glinted off my sunglasses, my smile was wide, I took a sip of water and strode down the beach.
I was not more than twenty metres from that point where I started a casual walk down the sand when my eyes- that had witnessed waste from the Patagonia to the top of Alaska, under the surface of the oceans and all across Europe- encountered it again, on one of my final days away from Australia since I had jumped off the hypothetical cliff. A day that I felt was pristine and untouched. But once again the beautiful land I was standing on had been invaded. My smile hardened on that stretch of beach. I knew there and then that I had made the right choice to focus on the problem that I had seen throughout dozens of countries because no matter where I had reached it was already there before me. I knew it without a shadow of a doubt on that morning, on a hot beach in a country that sits between Asia and Europe, when my eyes (once again) fell on plastic.