State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Changing Litterbugs One Wave at a Time

By now, most of us have heard about the Texas-sized island of plastic trash spiraling languidly in the middle of the Pacific Ocean’s subtropical gyre. Where it came from is no mystery: Worldwide, people use a lot of plastic products, and whether through littering or hiccups in the waste disposal process, a lot of it ends up on the ground somewhere. As with most buoyant materials, all roads — in this case rivulets, streams and rivers — lead to the ocean. With all of that refuse floating downstream over the years, it didn’t take long before, voila! An island was born.

Scientists and engineers have been scratching their heads wondering how to get rid of the unwanted trash island. It has been quite a challenge because different types of plastic have different rates of buoyancy, meaning that old bottles, fishing net floats, packaging materials, and myriad other items are suspended at different depths throughout the water column. By weight, plastic outnumbers microscopic zooplankton — the most basic of ecological puzzle pieces — six to one. In many cases, animals that would normally have eaten plankton ingest plastic, leaving little room in their guts for real food. Filled with plastic and unable to eat, they die.

All that's left of a Laysan albatross that ate plastic instead of food. -Courtesy US Fish & Wildlife Service, 2006
Sonia Machuca, WAVES for Development's environmental education teacher. -Benjamin Preston, 2011

While some tackle looming challenge of cleaning up the mess, others have decided to approach the problem at its source: People. Through education, these environmental philanthropists hope to change people’s mentalities so that proper waste disposal becomes more important to more communities. One such group — WAVES for Development International — focuses its educational efforts upon Lobitos, a small town in Northern Peru.

At the Pacific edge of a vast, rocky desert, Lobitos is home to what surfers consider to be some pretty spectacular waves. When the ocean conditions are right, the rocky points there come alive with the ocean’s energy, churning out some of the best left-breaking waves to be found anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, a problem as consistent as the surf there is the presence of litter. Many people who live in and visit Lobitos simply think it’s ok to toss rubbish on the ground, leaving an otherwise spotless coastal paradise dotted with glittering bits of plastic trash. WAVES is trying to change that mentality by honing in on children. They’ve been in town only three years, and already, staff members report that they’ve seen children admonishing their parents for littering.

A non-profit aimed at improving local capacity to participate in the area’s burgeoning surf tourism industry, WAVES achieves its mission primarily through youth education. From a small classroom in the dusty town’s central neighborhood, WAVES’ teachers, who are mostly locals themselves, teach Lobiteno kids English, environmental stewardship, surfing, surfboard repair, art — pretty much anything they can use to be economically competitive as their town’s nearly perfect waves become more and more of a draw for foreigners. Lending a hand by helping teach and, perhaps more importantly, by raising much-needed money for WAVES’ educational programs, are a handful of foreign surf tourists. Since 2008, over 100 have traveled to Lobitos to volunteer.

Children: the future of Lobitos, Peru. -Benjamin Preston, 2011

Volunteer tourism isn’t a new concept. Jess Ponting, a professor teaching sustainable tourism development at San Diego State University, and Stephen Wearing, a professor in the University of Technology, Sydney’s sustainable tourism development program, have been addressing the social and environmental impacts of surf tourism for the better part of the last decade. But Ponting says that WAVES has been the vanguard of a sustainable surf tourism movement that is only beginning.

“The field is small but growing and the industry needs all the guidance it can get,” said Ponting. “[WAVES] is an outstanding advocate for turning the surf tourism tide to a sustainable path.”

WAVES’ approach goes beyond economic considerations. By getting local kids amped on surfing and teaching them about the impacts of littering on ecosystems, the organization hopes to build a sense of pride and ownership in the kids who grow up there. Already, a surf scene that was composed mostly of foreigners and visitors from Lima — Peru’s capital city — has become more aware of a local presence. A handful of children who learned how to surf with WAVES have become passionate about the sport, giving environmental stewardship a whole new meaning. The hope is that their new stake in Lobitos will make them want to protect the area from overdevelopment and environmental degradation.

Litter is an even bigger problem 15 miles away from Lobitos, in Talara. -Benjamin Preston, 2011

“I’ve seen too many places ruined by [the] surfing [industry],” said WAVES board member Tyler Breuer. “Rich people come in and start up a surf camp, jack up the property value, and force the locals out.”

WAVES’ executive director, Dave Aabo, discovered Lobitos in 2004, when he was a Peace Corps volunteer working with coffee farmers in the mountains of Peru. Every month or so, on his days off from Peace Corps service, he descended from distant mountain villages to surf the coastal hamlet’s often tubing waves. The foreign surf scene was just beginning to ratchet up, and Aabo decided to apply some of the capacity-building skills he’d learned in the Peace Corps to help a place and population that had become special to him.

While small, shoestring non-profits like WAVES aren’t guaranteed success, the organization seems to be taking root in Lobitos. Aside from children getting involved in surfing and telling their parents not to litter, WAVES has gained acceptance in town as a trusted educational institution. But as WAVES’ resident volunteer coordinator, Sam Roches notes, they have a long road ahead of them.

“Education takes time,” he said. “Sometimes you have to wait ten years to see results.”

WAVES “voluntourists,” as Aabo calls them, have raised money to keep the organization afloat, but these altruistic surf travelers have also increased the amount of interaction between foreigners and Lobitenos. The idea behind the cultural exchange is achieving a higher level of understanding between impoverished villagers and adventurers who mostly hail from developed countries. Who knows, perhaps with people hitting the plastic problems from both human and technical angles, the Pacific plastic mass will finally start to shrink.

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Renée Cho
13 years ago

Thanks for your interesting and hopeful article. But actually, calling the plastic waste in the ocean an “island” is really a misnomer – scientists have determined that it’s really more like a plastic soup filled with confetti-sized bits of plastic.