The octopus moved weakly from within the faded soda can as my brother, Josh, peered inside. “I found it washed up on the beach, there was something growing around the can as well. I think it might have been coral”, he recalled. After putting the can back in the water to give the octopus a chance to live, Josh found the same aluminum can washed up again the very next day. This time, however, the octopus had vanished.
This incident was a startling reminder of just how much the waste we produce has begun to affect wildlife, even in the most remote locations. Our family was vacationing in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands at the time, a place known for its marvelous snorkeling spots and quiet, picturesque beaches; not, as one would assume, for its waste management difficulties.
When we first arrived, it was hard not to gawk at the view from our rental villa. The stunning view of Bolongo Bay stretched before us and seemed to be every bit of the secluded paradise that we had hoped to find in St. Thomas. It had it all; quiet beaches, quaint restaurants, and a rocky peninsula on the opposite side of the bay that enticed photographers and adventurous climbers alike.
I quickly grew captivated by the landscape and spent many mornings looking out at the tranquil view. After a short time, I began to feel like there was more to the scene than first met the eye. Upon closer examination and a visit to Google Maps, I soon realized that nestled just beyond this idyllic, rocky outcrop was not a continuation of the serene landscape as I first thought. Instead, I discovered that it was the Bovoni Landfill; an ominous reminder that even a “virgin” paradise like this must reckon with the consequences of our throwaway society.
With time, waste issues around the island became increasingly visible. There were many roadside dumping grounds and trash drop-off sites, several of which seemed to be lacking sufficient servicing. Recycling was limited to aluminum cans, so almost all waste produced was being sent to landfills. Due to the huge tourism industry on the island, it is likely that a massive portion of that waste comes not from those who are native to the island, but from people like you and I who visit on holidays and often forget about the footprint that we leave behind after our vacation ends.
Waste management and pollution is a difficult problem to tackle as an environmentalist because in reality, it is so much bigger than the “individual” level when looked at as a whole. However, the problem starts with independent action and consumption and can be fixed with the same individual effort if enough people choose to be part of the solution. Throughout this trip, I picked up litter on beaches, hikes, and while snorkeling. It was heartbreaking to see how trash accumulates in the most unlikely places, but it felt good to make an effort to change that. On your next trip, or walk in your local park, you can personally play a part in fixing our global waste problem. Having independent beach clean ups with friends or family, or even as a solo effort, can have a powerful impact on the local level. Pollution does not have to be an intimidating problem. With enough support and action from individuals like you and communities globally perhaps we can change the damage that we, and those before us, have caused. There can still be hope for a cleaner future, but we must take it in to our own hands to make it a reality.
All photos by Maya Bauer:
1) Aerial view of Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas USVI
2) Landscape of Blongo Bay
3) Landfill (right) on horizon of Bolongo Bay
4) Litter collected on a beach hike