Waste Management in South America and the Role of the Tourist

Written by Amelia Pumfrey

This is the forgotten story of the not so glamorous side to travelling the world. The other side of the pretty Instagram pictures of stunning locations and drinks in hammocks watching the sun go down.

Credit: Amelia Pumfrey

Credit: Amelia Pumfrey

I have been on the road now for 5 months, travelled across 6 countries, spent countless hours on a bus and visited some of the most magical places I could ever hope to discover. With only a month left in South America, time is flying by and, whilst I am enjoying every minute of it, there is one thing, one rather large thing, that is increasingly overshadowing every new place I visit.

Credit: Amelia Pumfrey

Credit: Amelia Pumfrey

No, it's not the possible danger that I may encounter as a woman in what, to many, are considered some of the most dangerous parts of the world, it is in fact the unfathomable amount of waste everywhere. It is strewn across every street I walk down, every corner I turn and, perhaps most heartbreakingly, across South America's most attractive and revered landscapes.

This is something that has seriously bothered me the whole trip and will be something that regretfully, I remember alongside the highlights of my time here. The numerous plastic bottles paving the sacred Inca trail to Machu Picchu, the polystyrene boxes bobbing in the crystal clear Caribbean ocean off the coast of Colombia and the countless bin bags decorating the city of La Paz. These are all images that cannot be erased from my memory.


Actions speak louder than words

Credit: Amelia Pumfrey

Credit: Amelia Pumfrey

The action that peaked my feelings towards the waste problem here sparked when I watched a Bolivian lady throw a plastic bag containing an empty carton of juice and biscuit wrappers out the window of a moving bus travelling from La Paz to Cochabamba in Bolivia. Worst of all we were 7 hours into an 8-hour journey, could she not have waited one more hour to dispose of her waste responsibly? Whilst this action may seem astonishing to both you and I, this lady did it without a moment’s thought and sure enough, 30 minutes later another piece of her rubbish was out the window, left on the roadside until it made its way down into the stunning valley we were passing through. Where, I am sure there was a whole family of other discarded plastic waiting to greet it. As a true Englishwoman, what did I do? Nothing. I was stifled by politeness and the voice of my mum in my head saying, ‘If you’ve got nothing good to say then say nothing at all’. I should have said something. Why didn’t I say something!

Sadly, today, getting rid of rubbish wherever and whenever you want is the norm across South America. Whether actions such as these are a result of a lack of education or down right ignorance, it cannot be and I am determined it won't be, the example we set for generations to come.

As one of the continents most widely affected by climate change, this issue seems somewhat more poignant here. Education is sorely needed to ensure the people understand the consequences of their actions.


The role of the tourist

For the sake of planet, the tourist should utilise the knowledge they have and impart it as they travel. Tourists can and should do more. Here are just a few small things that you can do as a tourist to make a positive impact:

  • Water purifier: This will purify and get rid of any bacteria and any other nasties in the water    meaning you can fill up from taps, using the same bottle repeatedly.
  • Chlorine Dioxide Tablets: Another option to water purifiers but they do leave a funny after taste.
  • Water Coolers: You can usually fill up your empty bottle at water coolers in hotels, banks or other large shops.
  • Large Water Containers: If you don’t have any means of purifying water, try buying a large container of drinking water and fill up your bottle from there, instead of buying many small bottles.
  • Reduce the amount of packaging you take from the offset. All plastic wrapping can be disposed of more effectively at home, where there are recycling facilities.
  • Take reusable containers out with you for food, instead of wrapping your packed lunch in plastic bags.
  • When travelling in remote regions take your rubbish with you until you reach larger towns,  where disposal facilities exist.
  • Use environmental friendly, natural bathroom products, and use them sparingly to minimise impact on the local water supply.
  • Pack and use cotton bags for your shopping. Any plastic bags you do get, use them as dirty laundry bags or for keeping kit dry.
  • Buy fruit and vegetables without packaging wherever possible.
  • Say no to straws! Steel straws and cutlery can be easily stowed in luggage

And finally, set a good example! One of the best parts of travelling is immersing yourself in the local culture; get chatting to the locals and be sure to show them your reusable bottles, containers and cotton bags! Maybe even take some with you that can be gifted to those you meet!

South America (despite the rubbish) has been one of the most vibrant and picturesque continents I have been lucky enough to travel. Yet, if waste management is not taken seriously I am not sure what the future holds for this culturally rich and so naturally beautiful part of the world.