Trashy Tourists?

I recently read an article written by a woman who travelled to Bali. She expected beautiful beaches and zen moments. Instead she found heaps of plastic trash. Bali, she said, had “mutated into a giant litter box. . . all thanks to the careless acts of tourists.”

I’ve been a tourist before, and I’ll be a tourist again, but there is no way I’m adding Bali’s plastic problem to my conscience. I don’t litter. Prime among the many good reasons not to litter is the crushing guilt I would feel if I did.

I don’t even know anyone who litters. My last littering friend was Veronica. She gave up throwing candy wrappers out the car window for lent in 1977. I caught up with Veronica recently and asked her if she had slipped back into her old littering ways. She was appalled: “Absolutely not! I’m the person in the neighborhood who picks up trash and participates in beach cleanups!”

Litterers still exist today, but they are rare. Once in awhile I catch someone in the act. I used to pick up their trash and say: “Excuse me. You dropped something.” The last person I said this to turned around with rage on his face and tattoos on his knuckles which were held up in tight fists. He looked more likely to visit jail then Bali, so I doubt he’s responsible for Bali’s trash problem.

I turned to an expert, Cecile Carson. Carson is Vice President of Litter with Keep America Beautiful and knows a lot about litterers: percentage of people who put trash where it belongs? 83; number of feet trash will be carried before it is dropped? 29; location of some of the biggest piles of cigarette butts? At the base of “No Smoking Beyond This Point” signs.

Carson says that litterers are typically between 16 to 30 years old. Only a small percentage from this age group are guilty, but they tend to be repeat litterers, and when they litter, their friends feel free to do the same. Though some people still litter, Carson says that we are making great strides in getting everyone to realize that littering is inappropriate. Our country has much less litter than it did back in 1968 when Keep America Beautiful published the world’s first research on the subject. Just how much cleaner are our roads, per linear mile, than they were back then? 61%.

I asked Carson if tourists were the cause of Bali’s trash problems. No. She mentioned an article from Science magazine, which listed Indonesia as the second biggest source of plastic in the ocean. Indonesia has plenty of stuff coming in, but insufficient infrastructure to handle it once it becomes waste.

When you go to the beach and find plastic trash, it doesn’t really matter if it was left by a litterbug or washed ashore from some far off place. The important thing is to remove it. So grab a bag from the BlueTube at your beach, pick up trash and throw it away. And if you run into a 16 to 30 year old litterer whose knuckles are not tattooed, tell them every litter bit hurts.

Next topic: Who is to blame for Bali’s waste problem?