For most of us in the United States, once we are through with some food item we throw the remains ‘away’. Maybe our tin cans or our cardboard boxes go into the recycling, but all our waste is picked up once a week and magically disappears from our lives. This is the result of living in a wealthy, well-organized nation.
But is this true for the rest of the world? And is it good?
Marine Educator Jenna Sullivan weighs in on the question:
“I taught high school biology for one year on a tiny, remote island called Wotje in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. We were a tiny strip of coral, populated by a few hundred people, some palm trees, some chickens and pigs. Much of the food we ate came from the island—chicken and pig for special occasions, but reef fish, coconuts, breadfruit, papaya, or a strange citrusy fruit called pandanus for everyday sustenance. Several times throughout the year, a supply ship would arrive from Majuro, the capital, bringing goods like rice, flour, and canned food—everyone would flock to the Mama Store to grab all the cans of Coke, instant coffee, and cartons of eggs, which were considered a rare treat despite the dozens of chickens that ran wild through backyards and laid eggs randomly around the island.
In my opinion, these food shipments are both a blessing and a curse to Wotje. On one hand, it reduces the strain on the island’s natural resources to feed an overcrowded population. On the other, it encourages consumption of massive quantities of rice, sugar and other foods with low nutritional value. Also, importantly, packaged food introduces a ton of waste to an island that is not equipped to deal with it. The first time I walked through the jungle, on my way to swim in the lagoon, and saw a huge swath of jungle next to the path lit up by a fiery inferno, I was very concerned. Did anyone else realize that the island was on fire? I rushed to my host family to alert them, but on the way I ran into a friend and was informed that this is a normal occurrence—burning is Wotje’s way of getting rid of trash, and it is certainly harmful to the environment, both on the island and in the atmosphere. There is no ‘away’, there is no trash pick-up day, and there isn’t even anywhere for the trash to hide. What you create, you either live with, throw in the ocean, or burn. When you live there, you get creative with ways to repurpose your refuse- an old tire becomes a fire pit; a wrecked WWII plane becomes a jungle gym.
Not only does Wotje have to deal with the trash its inhabitants create, but garbage also routinely washes up on it’s oceanside beaches. Even the uninhabited islands in the atoll chain are not immune to trash from the ocean. This garbage may have had its origin practically anywhere in the world, floating quietly on the ocean’s currents until it ran into the coral atoll I called home. Diapers, rusted cans, take-out boxes, or bottles were an everyday occurrence in the wrack line. But in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, you never know what will turn up: evidently, flotsam from a ship carrying illicit drugs washed up on the beach a few years before I lived on Wotje and island women used the white powder as laundry soap. One of the most exciting finds I witnessed, and the only positive one, was when an old Marshallese man found a message in a bottle from a family reunion in the Caribbean and needed help from a volunteer teacher with translation.
Wotje exports the rest of the world fish, handicrafts, and copra, the basis for coconut-oil products. For the most part, the rest of the world sends Wotje packaged junk food containers and floating debris. Fair trade?”