Plastic pollution: cropped out of sight, but not out of mind

Tourists and travellers don’t talk about – and certainly never take pictures of – the heartbreaking pollution that exists in the developing world. But we need to.

The Saigon River, as seen from Chinatown

The one thing that absolutely no tourist or traveller talks about – and certainly never takes pictures of – is the heartbreaking level of pollution that exists in the developing world. So keen are we to boast to our friends and family of the exponential, life changing experiences we are having in magical, spiritual that we crop out – both consciously and unconsciously – the tragic filth we see around us every day.

For six months I lived in Ho Chi Minh, in an area called Binh Thanh, which is largely populated by older local people and young, white expats like me looking for the ‘authentic’ Vietnamese life. In Binh Thanh authenticity looks like this: great food that costs nothing but that is guaranteed to give you gastroenteritis roughly every three weeks; many, many rats, cockroaches and – if you’re lucky – huntsman spiders the size of your father’s outstretched hand that will keep you safe from both, at least inside of your house. And the arse-end of the Saigon River.

“Plastic bags inside plastic bags, bubble tea straws the size of copper pipes, it all finds it way into Saigon River”

Those that have only ever stayed in district 1 – the central business and tourist district of HCMC – will know the Saigon River as a fairly benign feature of the city – generally lazy and abundantly populated by water chestnuts floating up from the Mekong. Anyone in Binh Thanh, however, will know it as a stinking, belching, tar pit of refuse that gives off the most appalling stench that even a two minute crossing is a life changing experience. And why the difference? The authorities – in their wisdom – put nets up at either end of the part that flows through district 1 to keep the pollution in the poorer districts.

The Saigon River, as seen from Chinatown
The Saigon River, as seen from Chinatown

In Binh Thanh, the whole waterway is now almost entirely artificial. So obsessive are the Vietnamese about plastic bags, cups and straws that new river banks are created by the hour. Plastic bags inside plastic bags, bubble tea straws the size of copper pipes that funnel 20g of sugar a pop that is fast making children obese and diabetic – it all finds it way into Saigon River. It is heartbreaking to see an old woman rowing through carrier bags, straws, sewage and used nappies to reach her riverside house – now less than a rubbish tip.

On a visit to Cat Ba island in the north of the country I visited a number of beaches – every single one was awash with plastic rubbish. It comes from both holidaymakers and the distant floating villages, where fisherman thoughtlessly toss plastic wrappers into the ocean – ultimately poisoning the fish that are their livelihood, as well as those that eat them. On one beach I met a group of young local boys and a Sicilian backpacker that were swimming out to fill bags with rubbish. The latter told me he had been collecting for just an hour and had filled four large white straw sacks around a metre high and half a metre wide.

“In Delhi and Mumbai you truly cannot see the sky for the greasy smog”

Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh and the south especially – is blessed by a geographical position that means the air pollution that comes from the astonishing number of motorbikes on the road (in both HCMC and Hanoi there are two motorbikes for every citizen) doesn’t linger. This is not so in Delhi and Mumbai where you – quite literally – cannot see the sky for the heavy, grey smog that makes an already oppressive heat quite unbearable – particularly in the latter city. This inescapable evidence of environmental degradation makes it all the more frustrating to see the arsenal of plastic rubbish that carpets India’s most ancient monuments, such as Elephanta Island – a UNESCO world heritage site covered in empty water bottles.

Elephanta Island, Mumbai
Elephanta Island, Mumbai. A UNESCO world heritage site.

As a privileged white European, my experience in the developing world was the first time I have been faced by pollution of any meaningful quantity. Over the last 40 years Europe and the West has outsourced its manufacturing and by extension, our pollution and industrial waste to these regions. Many also labour under corrupt governments that do not build the infrastructure that can solve waste challenges as long as they are being incentivised by Western companies like Nestle and Coca-Cola not to do so. If Vietnamese and Indians could drink their tap water, their plastic waste problem would be halved overnight.

Since returning home it seems that we in Europe are waking up – excellent campaigns by Sky News and latterly Blue Planet are highlighting the irreversible damage we are doing to our oceans through our addiction to plastic. I have seen how disturbingly easy it is for us to sit back in our – truly – green and pleasant European lands and simply not see. And tourists that choose to crop out pollution from their holiday snaps do not help. During my whole year travelling and living in the developing world I took less than five photos of the terrible pollution I saw. I have published them here. And I call on all travellers to do the same.

“It’s time to acknowledge the rubbish – and to do something about it”

Meanwhile, I have made a firm pledge to change my own behaviour: I will not buy a single disposable water bottle or coffee cup again. I carry both a water bottle and travel mug with me at all times. I am also reducing waste – and saving money – by taking my own lunches to work and I will not use a plastic bag unless there is absolutely no choice. It’s time to open our eyes – to see and to acknowledge the rubbish – and to do something about it.

Mumbai weather forecast
Mumbai weather forecast

Author: Rebecca E Jones

Journalist, nomad, cultural magpie. An inveterate Londoner, in 2016 I embarked on a year of travel through South Africa, India and South East Asia that changed the way I see the world and its inhabitants - especially myself. Here I share what I learned - and continue to learn - through my journey.

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