He’d Be Bawling

The modern day Native American with a tear in her eye

(Dana) In the 1970s, littering was an epidemic in the US. Discarded food wrappers everywhere. Automobile passangers routinely tossed garbage onto anonymous forests and fields as they zipped past. Those who tossed didn’t see it land, so it didn’t exist anymore. Right? Then came what must have been one of the most influential public service announcements ever. If you are over 40, you probably remember the “Native American.” if you are not, here’s what I rememeber from my childhood… A car is speeding along the highway. A fast food bag with its (probably styrofoam) contents are launched out of the window. The bag lands and rolls several times, coming to rest at the feet of a Native American. The camera pans up to his wrinkled face which has seen so much in his lifetime. A single tear rolls down his cheek.

Sadly, Greg and I have recounted this commercial to the kids and our guides many times this year. Sadly, we have seen piles and piles of trash marring some of the most beautiful and otherwise pristine landscapes on the planet. It is not that people are evil or stupid, they are just not aware.

Using plastic bags at the market

For centuries, containers were organic. When women in Vietnam (or Kenya or India or Bali or…) went to the market, they carried a straw basket to hold all their purchases. Now, each vendor packages their beans, onions, tomatoes, chills in individual plastic bags that are then placed into a larger plastic bag for transport. When the time comes to cook, the plastic bags hit the trash.

For centuries, when people finished eating snacks, the discarded fruit peel or nut shell would decompose. Now, foil chip bags are dropped on the side of Himalayan trails in the same off-handed manner without the same ability to decompose.

Beer bottles are actually recycled in Bhutan

And for centuries, water was drinkable. Now, increasingly, bottled water is being used worldwide. Without clean drinking water in Egypt, discarded plastic bottles are literally everywhere. This might be good for Nestle stock, but horrendous for the Nile and the Red Sea.

Importantly, I am not condemning the countries with trash issues. Most local people are not thinking about the fact that trash is no longer organic material that rapidly decomposes. We are learning about the issues and what governments and people need to do together:

  • Non-profits can help with individual wells, but governments must make clean drinking water a priority. As our kids have said, water could be the next global crisis and trigger for international conflicts.
  • Recycling is critical. It has been obvious which countries have a government-funded, economic incentive to recycle plastic and/or glass bottles — e.g. Cambodia and Bhutan.
  • Trash must be picked up. Individual schools in Egypt, Bhutan and other countries are making a dent in the piles. Our hometown runs an annual trash pick-up day. But Rwanda is the only country we have heard about where it is such a priority that even the President goes out monthly to help pick up trash. Imagine if every elected or hereditary leader in the world followed that example.
  • Reusable bags and water bottles must be embraced. We must continue this commitment to decreasing our use of plastic. On our adventure, we have been carrying refillable water bottles with us whenever possible. Maybe when I get home, I will staple my reusable grocery bags to my hand so I don’t forget them in the car!

Based on our experience in the US, it is a matter of education and leadership. And progress can be made in just one generation. Otherwise, those tears are going to flow a lot faster in a lot more places.

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