One person might not make much of a difference...
or can they?
January 15, 2010 AM Feeling a bit nervous this morning, pulling on my old torn trekking pants and dirty shirt, not sure if I'll be arrested, stoned, laughed at or worse. As I leave the hotel, I see the usual young guys hanging around with nothing to do. They ask "where am I going?", so I invite them to come along and help me clean plastic from the river. We target downstream from the bridge in the centre of town. With Zaid and Hassan in tow, I climb over the concrete wall and began picking plastic bags from mud, shrubs, under rocks and stuff just plain floating around in the water. The water is shallow and clear making it easy to work one side to the other balancing on rocks where water runs fast and deep. Zaid is in the café asking the waiters to give us clean plastic bags to put our collected stuff in and soon the waiters begin helping by taking away our full bags for disposal and giving us encouragement when they aren't busy. Within a half hour we have the river completely free of plastic from about 100 feet down all the way to the bridge. It looks fantastic! Zaid and Hassan are feeling good about it too. We have lots of thumbs up from passers by and lots of blank stares. But when invited no one joins us. One French lady stops to offer her opinion and wants to know why we aren't wearing gloves. I invite her to help by going to find some but she barely hides her disgust and walks off. Ah well you can only try. Zaid agrees to meet me after lunch. We'll start by cleaning up river from the bridge. Hassan has disappeared.
January 15 PM
Up river from the bridge is definitely target zero. I can see mounds of garbage all along the banks. One side is clearly a dumping ground where garbage is burned on a regular basis. There's even a fire pit full of garbage waiting to be lit. Ironically there are three large green refuse bins near us right beside the bridge. I watch one man from the market walk right past the refuse bins and drop a full plastic garbage bag into the river. I stare in disbelief but he ignores me with stoney determination and hobbles off.
Someone must have told them about the crazy tourist cleaning plastic from the river.
The river here is full of frogs! Despite one hotel sewer running directly into the river the ecosystem seems healthy. One bag hides mating frogs so I wonder if I'm destroying valuable cover for them. But then I decide no – if one was ever caught inside the bag it would definitely be trapped. Picking plastic here is like picking fruit.
Zaid shows up about 15 minutes later and he jumps in with enthusiasm. Together we work upstream for about 100 feet encouraged by singing frogs. Then we notice two men following in the river behind us. They are actually cleaning up the garbage we've ignored, mainly paper products and anything metal or glass. Zaid tells me they're city workers and that someone must have told them about the crazy tourist cleaning garbage from the river. We soon have the three refuse bins overflowing.
Next a garbage truck arrives to empty the bins. Hurray! We speak to the driver but he's oblivious to our work. Zaid told me they only empty the trash once every three days but are supposed to do it every day. I wonder if this was day three or if someone is getting the rap because of the crazy tourist. Zaid is really concerned about this situation and wants me to go speak with the minister in charge tomorrow. But I'm thinking I'd rather keep a low profile and use direct action rather than negotiate. I have no solution but to clean up the mess and really nothing to say about it that isn't obvious to anyone with eyes to see. The people who live here are aware there's a problem and need to find their own solutions.
January 16 AM
Decided to rent a bicycle and ride to some gorges and stay overnight in the desert village of Tiwadou. This involves riding over a massive mountain pass. To me it seemed the equivalent of the Tizi n Test which is one of the steepest passes in Morocco. I leave Tafroute at 12:30 which was a mistake making me climb the pass in the heat of mid day. I gave up even trying to pedal any part of it with my small but heavy pack pulling me down. After 3 hours of hot switchbacks I finally arrive in a village to buy some badly needed water. Immediately after, the road finally relents and allows me straddle the bike whooping with joy, fulfilling one of my fantasies of free riding into a deep gorge for miles.
All the children took one school day to clean the river and burn the plastic...
January 16 PM
I arrive in Tiwadou at 6pm sunset, dusty, sweaty, and very tired. Four others are also staying in the auberge, doing this same ride over 3 days. We enjoy hot showers, impromtu music on drums and Berber strings and a meal provided by our host Mohamed Sahnoun. Mohamed is well known for his success in making positive change for his village and I ask him about it. He tells me how they built a meeting place where the village women are learning to read and write and now look after their own affairs without the intervention of any man in the village, as they are not allowed to enter their meetings. It's very successful. Then Mohamed also tells me about his newest project which will be an annual event cleaning plastic from the nearby river. He pulls out a photo album and shows the event he organised last April (2009) where all the children took one school day off to clean the river and burn the plastic, then they held a festival and feast afterward. Needless to say I was very pleased! When I queried why not target the source of the plastic he told me the polution was coming from upstream, from a gold mine where rich people live only part of the year. Perhaps someday I will bring a group to join him in April to target that village near the mine. Yet I worry about heavy metal tailings that accompany gold mining.
Back to Tafroute. Most of the road this morning is very rocky, jolting the palms of my hands so they are bruised in spite of having shocks on my bike. I stop to take a few photos of the usual garbage that follows human beings wherever we may be. My god we're dirty animals! However this thought is soon dispersed by the gorgeous landscape, riding along on the quiet road all morning is fantastic once I leave the rocks and ride soft dirt paths winding through valley oasis. Eventually I join with the paved road at the top of the big pass, hitch my pack onto the seat of my bike and launch off. What fun! At the bottom 15 minutes later I'm looking back up the switchbacks I just rode down. 3 hours walking up yesterday? Cripes how fast was I just going?
x!&# must have hit the fan somewhere at
Sweet day! Having breakfast in the café by the river what do I see? Two men in the river cleaning up the garbage!! Now a daily event? Even all the refuse bins are empty. The x!&# must have hit the fan somewhere at garbage central. Perhaps one crazy tourist's action has made a difference. Zaid and I feel very happy and encouraged.
I leave Tafroute today for Agadir. To get there I have to pass through a town on the Atlantic coast where there is a new factory with a huge sign TIZNIT PLASTIC. No shyness here. I wonder as we pass if this is the source of the blue shopping bags I've recently seen children peddling in the markets everywhere.
Can one person really change anything?
Arrived in a mountain town called Imouzzer – Paradise Valley, famous for its beautiful waterfalls and green fertile valley. Plastic everywhere! I feel totally deflated after the highs of the previous days. It occurs to me that with such great quantity in every ravine and every river there must be massive amounts entering the ocean every day all over this country. This thought is very distressing. Now every time I purchase something I feel disgust when someone hands me a plastic bag. I take a long walk and try not to feel overwhelmed. Can one person really change anything?
This evening I'm the only one in the hotel. Aneflous my waiter fusses as I eat my dinner. I'm feeling too depressed to say much but he wants company so I listen to him talk about whatever. He tells me he's the president of his local village association and aside from the usual women's projects, he is the local authority about proper disposal of plastic for his community. I'm thinking he's not a very effective communicator because Imouzzer is a mess. But his mission isn't about cleaning up, it's about giving information to those who ask for it. Aneflous theory is that you have to have the motivation first, then seek the knowledge to take action. Definitely a different approach but perhaps not very effective, and definitely very time consuming. I'm sure direct action is the only way. By example is the most obvious way to teach and to reach those who are unable to access information, especially in a developing country like Morocco where information is not easy to come by and asking the right questions isn't common knowledge. He tells me Tiznit Plastic is just a small offshoot company of one of the big oil companies out of Casablanca and that the owners/directors probably all live in Europe so don't even think about trying to talk to them. But that got me thinking about how great it would be if Tiznit Plastic could sponsor a cleanup campaign.
I hear the word mushkal over and over.
I love it when you are open to ideas and they come pouring in! On the TV at the Agadir bus station I catch the tail end of a news broadcast showing mounds of garbage. I hear the word mushkal over and over. Mushkal is Arabic for problem.
Over the 10 years I've been living and working in Morocco I've seen plastic grow from a few bags blowing across the Sahara, to clogged rivers and watersheds everywhere, from a few bags left by roadsides to huge dumps into riavines and gorges. In developing countries where information is not readily available to citizens, it can take governments a long time to develop solutions for problems. I believe people learn and are encouraged by example. Tourism is very important in Morocco. As a tourist anyone can make the problem seen and heard most easily by taking direct action. And I have to add, it feels so very good to pick up that first bag!
How to Get Dirty
You'll need some old clothes and a pair of strong rubber gloves to start. Wear shoes, not sandals as rivers often contain broken glass. Wear sunscreen and a hat with a brim. It makes it easier to see plastic under water. Don't try to clean everything. Leave anything biodegradable like paper products, glass or metal, but do remove batteries. They're full of heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium and lead. Choose one big strong bag and leave room to securely tie it.
Try to involve someone from the community to help you. In Morocco, lots of people have nothing to do and want to be working. So just ask. But with a smile. Maybe even offer some incentive like buying them a tea or coke afterward. Offering money probably isn't a good idea.
You'll have to make some plans for disposal of your collection. In everytown in Morocco there is a burning site for plastic, often just a metal circle sitting somewhere in a field. Ask around. Taking the plastic to a dump site probably means it will eventually blow off into the land if it isn't burned soon enough.
Smoke from burning plastic is toxic.
Rivers are full of dead things, and live ones too. Don't go into the water over your knees. Beware of bushes and brush piles. Snakes may be lurking there. Make lots of noise with a strong stick before cleaning these kinds of sites. Finally always work with a buddy, never alone. And take some time to reward yourself at the end of a good day with a visit to the hammam! Its amazing how much you can clean in one hour! I considered where to start for several months, then decided rivers are the best targets. People treat them as sewers, when really rivers are the most precious natural places because every living thing must consume water. But plastic cleanup is needed in every kind of environment.
I'd love to hear about your cleanup experiences.
I'll post them on this page...
I’ve just finished reading a fascinating account of some personal direct action from a Canadian who is living and working in Morocco. Robbin Yager provides Tours and Treks in Morocco. One day she decided to roll up her sleeves and start clearing plastic trash out of some of the dry riverbeds in that country.
I have never undertaken any trash cleanups as ambitious as hers. When I was in Tunisia, I would walk for a few kilometers on the beach and pick up as much as I could carry. I always worried about where this trash went after I placed it in the dumpsters. Recycling in that region was pretty much limited to those few items that were profitable such as corrugated paper and plastic beverage containers. I was once confronted by a guard as I approached the fence of a beach resort while picking up garbage. I didn’t have the command of the language that it would take to make a nuanced response when I was asked what I was doing. This was a tense and awkward moment and it was discouraging.
When I first moved to Malta five years ago, I spent the first month living in a cheap apartment on the outskirts of a resort area. There was a lot of litter. Whenever I was putting our recyclables and garbage on the curb, I would always spend some time adding to our allotment from the stuff that was lying around outside. One day, a British expat across the street was laughing at me and telling me how futile it was to pick up trash. I think his words were "You’ll never get it all.”
I will never get it all but I still make a point of getting some of it. I am not a strong swimmer, so when the rest of the family is snorkeling in the deep I dive around in the shallows picking up ice cream cups and coke bottles and plastic bags and bendy straws. When I have gathered an armload of trash, I usually have to walk to a receptacle that is conveniently located next to businesses that cater to tourists. The big sunglasses that are in vogue prevent me from accurately gauging the looks that I get from these tourists. I have never had anyone join me.
Littering is one a a handful of social and environmental issues that I keep my nose out of when I am a guest in a foreign country. I do keep up with the local news and I quietly cheer on any local people who are speaking up about those issues. Tunisia has an official mascot for environmentalism. It is a cartoonish looking fennec fox that is often mistaken as a mouse by tourists. Malta finally has a real tax on plastic bags. Tourists sometime grumble and pay the Euro 0.25 per bag. Locals use reusable bags or sometimes cardboard boxes.
I think spending some time picking up litter while you are on vacation is a great idea. If you want to plan a vacation around cleaning up plastic trash, Hawaii sounds like the perfect place.
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WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Please get dirty with me!
you to give one hour of your time to clean somewhere, preferably a river,
especially if you're traveling where plastic is a problem. Please consider
doing this. You will be amazed at how good it feels to take direct action.
If all travellers, and even tour companies took one hour of time with their
clients for some kind of direct action, think of the impact we could have.
OK not everyone wants to muck around in a river with garbage. But in the end,
the rewards are far greater than the yuck factor.
See my direct action advice below.
I don't have any answers on how to dispose plastic, this is something thats still being debated and researched by a very few brave and independent souls. It desperately needs to be made a priority by the same research and manufacturers that create the stuff. I've been told that when black plastic is burned, nothing will grow on that soil for years. Yet burning is the only solution for complete disposal. Sure some plastics can biodegrade or be recycled, but very few. In a landfill, plastic can take up to 1,000 years to degrade. The reality is that new plastics are being created every year, and with no disposal or recycling in place, we are drowning in the stuff. But plastic is put there one bag at a time, so I'm not going to let that stop me from cleaning rivers one plastic bag at a time. Whatever mushkal you choose, I wish you all the luck in the world.
- Addicted to Plastic
available to rent at Rogers and Blockbuster - highly recommended!
just google plastic problems
MY TIRELESS HELPER