By: Bethany Hughes
Bethany "Fidget" Hughes and Lauren "Neon" Reed are traversing the length of the Americas by non motorized means, connecting stories of the land and its inhabitants. They are currently in central Peru. Follow them at Her Odyssey.
Neon and I stopped through a pueblo along the Qhapaq Ñan (the old Incan road system) for a quick drink. We opted for the retornable glass bottles because ... of the imprints we seek to leave, contributing to plastic pollution is not one. The best kind of impact one could hope to leave are footsteps and positive impressions. In our journey of hiking across South America, we are guided both by roads and routes set by ancient cultures and also the work of a small community of modern long-distance hikers.
Chatting with the shop owner, Nancy, her friend in full Cholita dress, and her two small children, the women began relating stories about previous turistas. They said the first ones they remembered coming through were about a decade ago, a man and a woman who scared the whole town when they camped in a field nearby. No one knew who they were or where they had come from. These now-mothers would have been children then.
It turns out, the frightening foreigners were Gregg and Deia, on their Across the Andes trek. Their GPS track was the first significant data set I found when planning the Her Odyssey route. They followed in the wake of Ian Reeves, of whom I heard stories in Argentina. The locals still shake their heads in disbelief when relating the tale of how, when the donkey he had bought died a few weeks later, he took the time and effort, and dug it a proper grave. They had never seen someone work so hard to honor a dead animal before.
We follow in the more recent tracks of Joey Shonka. He too built on the work of Gregg and Deia, leaving a more detailed GPS route and packing out water samples to contribute to the Adventure Scientists Global Microplastics study. In the deep folds of Patagonia there now circulates the story of a giant man with a massive beard who ate fish raw.
Neon hikes up a segment of the Qhapaq Ñan just outside of a town. In these areas the route is so worn into the ground that it is often viewed as a pit. Without recourse to waste disposal, such sections are frequently used as a dumping location. This does not mean South Americans necessarily produce more trash than North Americans, it is simply more evident. Photo by Bethany Hughes
In our era, the first long-walker of this particular stripe was George Meegan, who walked the full length of the Americas from 1977-1983. He later worked in Ecuador to preserve native languages which are rapidly dying. Most recently he traveled through remote regions of Iraq, meeting sheiks and observing the political shifts afoot there.
Each of these hiking predecessors left a positive mark on the world not only by their walks but also through contributions to science, culture, art, and education. Their routes and advice are resources we build on and their encouragement is fodder which propels us in perpetuating good works during our own walk: participating in the Pollinators Project, contributing route information to other long distance hikes, creating classroom material for teachers, telling the stories of strong women we encounter, and anything else we can do to pay it forward.
The impact of a hike does not stop at the end of the trail––it continues to flourish and perpetuate goodness in unexpected ways. Nancy was positive and hopeful as we returned the soda bottles and she gave us water from the tap behind her house.
“We are not afraid anymore because now we have seen turistas on the Qhapaq Ñan,” she says.
For locals, responsible international travelers are a chance to earn a living, a reason to have pride in and a desire to preserve natural and historical resources, and an opportunity to learn and to teach how things can be done better and cleaner.
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What do you get the planet that has everything?
Nothing made of plastic, that's for sure. Of plastic things, we have given Earth enough.
So for Earth Day this year, humans around the world are banding together to check the use of this incredibly convenient and destructively indestructible substance. As our own Microplastics Initiative has shown, plastic pollution is at this point present nearly everywhere on Earth, and it's time we did more to change that.
Sign the Petition
On the governmental side, people can speak out to their officials via the Earth Day Network's End Plastic Pollution Petition. With 300 million tons of plastic sold each year and 90% of that thrown away, there's a lot of room for laws and regulations to help rein-in our collective use (and plenty for us as individuals to cut back on, law or no law).
Think about that: 90% thrown away. We've created a helpful and versatile wonder substance that can last for centuries––and then we promptly throw it away as soon as it's made.
On the official EarthDay.org site, the Earth Day Network relayed stats from the New York Times, stating that in 2015 plastic packaging accounted for 42% of non-fiber plastic produced, and 54% of the plastic thrown away. Say what you will about the usefulness of plastic, if it's that useful, we should not just be tossing it all away.
And as our Microplastics Initiative has shown, the fiber plastic mentioned above is a big problem, present in 74% of the samples collected by hundreds of volunteers over several years. Even worse, the most recent paper from the project, by lead scientist Abby Barrows and team, showed that a lot of the fiber pollution isn't even plastic––natural fibers represented 31% of the microfibers identified. Treated with dyes and other chemicals, they can act the same as plastic fibers, accumulating toxins and resisting decomposition to the detriment of the animals that consume them––and the animals that consume the animals that consume them––all the way up the food chain.
Open Your Eyes and Minimize
So what can we do while we wait to see what kind of impact the petition could have?
EarthDay.org also offers visitors a Plastic Use Calculator and Pledge. Though it's not very useful scientifically (exactly how many "cotton swabs" equal one "plastic cling wrap"?) filling out the calculator can help illustrate just how many plastic items we each go through in a year, and how a few small changes to our behavior can combine to have a significant impact.
Cutting down on our use of plastic packaging is a good step to take, and easy to implement. But what about microfibers?
Ready for Earth Day 2020?
Looking forward, the Earth Day Network is focusing on five components for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020, the first of which is citizen science. The goal is to engage a million participants in collecting a billion data points on "air quality, water quality, pollution and human health."
I think we know a few people who might be interested ...
Take Action Now: You can also celebrate Earth Day and show some love for our home planet by applying to join our active projects this spring and summer. You can hike and collect bigleaf maple leaves to combat illegal timber harvesting, or head up into some alpine meadows and photograph butterflies to help survey biodiversity in the backcountry. There's a lot more to both of those projects, so take a look, take the training, and give back to your planet!
This spring and summer, we're recruiting old and new Adventure Scientists volunteers to join our Conserving Biodiversity: Pollinators project. The mission is simple: get into the backcountry and photograph butterflies and the plants they use (there are more details, of course). What you get back is a bit more ethereal:
"I think the best thing about participating last year was that it added this additional layer to my sight as I was out hiking. No longer was I just seeing 'some butterflies.' I was now noticing their frequency, color, species, and relationship to the land. It awakened this whole other realm within the environment I was passing through. And I loved that."––Stacey McClure, 2017 Pollinators Volunteer
If you'd like to see your favorite landscapes through a new lens, apply to join us for butterfly season 2018. We have one project focused on Arizona, California, Utah, Montana, and Washington, and a slightly different global project as well, open to people anywhere.
Learn more about both projects and apply to join us today!
Read the Landmark Notes blog: