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The earth is not our garbage dump

Updated on March 14, 2013

Many years ago I had the opportunity to visit the beautiful island of Jamaica as a travel agent. While there, we were shown pristine beaches, glamorous hotels and well maintained tourist attractions. Every care was taken to show us the best the island had to offer. It was truly amazing, an island paradise fit for a king…

...until we left the resort area. The day we were all loaded up on a bus and hustled off to another sparkling tourist mecca, we saw another side to the island.

At first no one noticed the subtle change in scenery. We were all too busy chattering about what we had seen and where we were going next. Then someone finished her soda. With no obvious trash can to be found, she took her mega sized plastic cup up to the front intending to put it in the driver’s trash. To her horror the driver told her to throw it out the window. “That’s what the islanders do, mon. No worries.” The bus grew silent in disbelief. Our attention was turned to the outside. Suddenly we noticed the piles of trash littering the landscape. The lovely island we had been enjoying looked like a garbage dump. It was obvious that no care was ever taken to clean up. Our poor guide from the tourist office looked like he wished the bus would swallow him whole. Taking her cup, our guide mumbled something about the tourist board’s attempt to educate the natives on the importance of not littering. A feeling of distain filled the bus.

Of course I recognize the hypocrisy behind our scorn. After all, we live in a country that thinks nothing of leaving our garbage behind in the movie theater or tossing our cigarette butts on the ground. To pick up a piece of trash on the sidewalk is beneath most of us, and we are just as guilty of throwing our litter along the road. We are content in the belief that someone else who does care will pick it up, and that it’s some else’s job to clean up after us. But all of this was forgotten in the stark contrast between the perfectly manicured resorts we had just enjoyed, and the sad reality of what we were now seeing. This was supposed to be Paradise. We had witnessed how beautiful it could be and we didn’t understand how the locals could let it get so ugly. Why didn’t they care enough to take care of their island and keep it beautiful for themselves?

And then I learned another side to the story.

Recently I had the privilege of taking a Caribbean cruise with my husband’s family. One of the highlights of the trip was a hike we took on the island of St. Maartin. Starting in the beautiful Guana Bay residential area, we hiked over a steep narrow trail along the rocky cliffs to Geneve Bay’s stony beach. The views were stunning. Unlike the tranquil, sandy beaches and calm turquoise waters of the Caribbean side of the island, the eastern shoreline displays all the passion and wild abandon of the Atlantic waves pounding the coast. It was truly an enjoyable hike. Only one disturbing sight marred the perfection, an amazing amount of trash littered the rocky beaches. There were piles of it everywhere. I couldn’t imagine where it came from. Not only was our trail too narrow and steep for the debris to be carried in, but the rest of the landscape was unblemished. There were no roads, homes or other indicators civilization on this part of the island to explain the origins of the trash piles. I had already seen the evidence of native litterbugs as we left Philipsburg, but this was ridiculous.

I was ready to ask about it when our guide enlightened us. The rubbish came in from the ocean, riding the waves from our far away shores. The islanders do care about their coastline. Our guide informed us that every month the school children make the hike to clean up these beaches. They take turns coming in groups and try to clean up the garbage. They take away the plastics and removed what they can get back up the treacherous trail. The rest is sorted into piles for the coast guard to pick up. Unfortunately, the water on this side of the island is very rough and it isn’t too often the sea is calm enough for safe passage. At the time we were there, it had been six months since the last pick up.

Now I have a new understanding of their problem. The Caribbean Islands are overwhelmed with the trash that comes to them from faraway lands. Their litter is insignificant compared to what the sea brings in. It’s not a surprise they don’t bother. They have enough to do cleaning up after us.

There will always be junk that ends up in the oceans that can’t be helped. Ships wreck, waves toss things overboard, and storms force debris into the sea. But there is also a lot that can be prevented. So the next time you go to throw that piece of trash overboard, think of the school children in St. Maartin. It’s not their job to clean up after you. Please find a trash can and dispose of your garbage responsibly. We all have to share this planet.

To read about the garbage dump in the pacific ocean, please visit fellow hubber Mr. Archer and his hub Pollution - the Great Pacific Garbage Patch linked here:


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