The idea of doing the beach cleanup project started one sleepless night in May 2015. The first few months of us trying to get it started were frustrating and disheartening. It turned out to be very difficult to try and plan something months ahead and not actually be in the country for it. But as we got closer to the dates, everything started to come together.
First was my friend’s younger sister, called Cecilia, who got in touch with me and offered to join forces and help manage the facebook page. She was a godsend and was of great help.
Then a young artist called Luis wrote and said he would love to work on the murals that we wanted to do. He and his girlfriend, Maria Gracia, were really passionate about the environment and Luis even offered to start running our instagram page.
Cecilia, Chechi, had some old classmates that run a website about travelling and adventure in Ecuador called Heroe 593 and they said they wanted to support us in any way they could and started to promote our beach clean ups and thanks to them we really got more people showing up and more people getting to know our project.
Rafael had helped Chechi in a previous clean up by donating the sacks in which we collected the rubbish and he committed himself in offering his full support in everything he could. So little by little we got a small team of people ready to get their hands dirty and help us out for our month long project in January.
The first clean up was the 2nd of January, and being so close to the New Years Day holiday, not many people showed up. All in all we were around 20 volunteers, that included my uncle Andy , aunt Carmen and cousin Stephen, who helped us a lot, my mum came to give us a hand, Chechi and her family, some of the Heroe 593 crew and also my dear friend Genoveva, who was visiting from Canada and came along with her partner and son. We cleaned the beach for three hours and in a very short distance we collected over 238kg of rubbish. We really enjoyed the day though and felt good to have accomplished so much with so few hands.
At the end of the weekend we came back to the boat to check that everything was ok. That was one of the hardest parts of the month as we had to travel all over the coast to organize the clean ups while our boat was left alone at anchor. Luckily we found a nice “marinero” from the Yacht Club who looked after our boat while we were away in exchange of 10 dollars a day.
After relaxing a few days we were ready to hit back the road and go to our next clean up, this time in a small town called Engabao but by that Monday everything started to change. Apparently our project had reached the ears of the Ministry of Tourism and it also had coincided with the President of the country saying how terrible and dirty the beaches were during his weekly speech. From that Monday on, our phone wouldn’t stop ringing, different people from the government wanted to get in touch with us and offer us their full support. It was all a bit overwhelming and confusing as we didn’t really know what to expect.
That same week, before getting to Engabao in Playas, we were asked to stop in the main city Guayaquil to give a press conference about our project and we were guided by all these people from the government specifically from the tourism ministry. That same day that we had the press conference, we went back to the government offices and had a skype call with the minister himself and he said he would join us in our next clean up in Engabao.
From that meeting to the actual day of the clean up, a lot of things started to happen. The media got involved and one channel in particular were promoting our project as if it was their idea and inviting all the country to come on Saturday. This made us worried because we didn’t want the clean ups to turn into a show, where people just go to have their photo taken and don’t even understand what they are there for. The government has done that in the past. They’ve organized an event called Playaton were thousands of people go to the beach one day a year to clean up but they arrive and leave without learning anything about it.
We were very specific about what we wanted our message to be. This was an initiative from common people and we wanted to let everyone know, that we can all make change, so we were a bit worried about having all this attention from the government now and misleading our main message. We were also adamant about keeping it low profile, having a plastic free event and focusing on educating people about the plastic pollution issue instead on having a big scale show.
The Friday before the clean up the minister of tourism agreed to have a meeting with us from Mingas por el Mar and all the other people that had been working on small projects along the coasts. We invited a few of our friends, Paula from Mi playa Limpia and July and Cesar from Montanita and it was a hopeful meeting to gather ideas on what to do and how to go about improving our beaches and keeping them cleaner. We left the room feeling hopeful.
Unfortunately the next day wasn’t as successful as the night before as it kind of got out of hand. It was a complete show. We had TV stars, all the media there, the minister, who did work hard cleaning up but then all kinds of political groups just showing up and picking up one thing for the camaras. There were people from the media giving free plastic water bottles to the tv stars, and there was a lot of people there, but a lot of them were there to see the starts and just watch, nothing else. So although we picked up 434 kg of rubbish, we were left a bit shaken and not that happy about this so called “support” we were getting.
That Monday we had a meeting in the government offices with the people from the ministry of tourism and the ministry of the environment to try and gather ideas on how to improve the situation on our beaches. We also use the opportunity to tell them what we didn’t like about the last clean up and hoped that by the next one it would be a bit better and luckily it was.
The next clean up was in Salinas. We were there a few days in advance and like in all the different places we visited, we did a few talks in schools and got everything ready for the day. This beach is called Mar Bravo and is never visited by tourists because it has really rough waves, so it gets a lot of rubbish washed out from other beaches and it never gets cleaned. For us, this was the best clean up we had. We had a good group of people turned up. We didn’t have the TV stars anymore but some of the media did show up to cover the day and everything worked well. All the volunteers worked together, the trucks were there at the right time to take the rubbish to the dumps and we picked up 499kg of rubbish.
The following week we visited Montanita, which is one of the most touristy towns along the coast. We visited the school and showed the documentary in two different venues but this clean up was a bit disorganized as well. We had the association of beach vendors all going out to clean earlier than what we asked to, with their own plastic bags, not separating the rubbish and even just bringing their own home rubbish to leave at our pile. At the end of the day we had much more work separating the rubbish and the truck that was supposed to come at a certain time, never showed up so they gave us a little car to take all the rubbish to their dump and didn’t want to recycle all the glass bottles we had separated. This clean up we picked up a total of 392 kg of rubbish and we were glad when we were finished.
The last clean up was in Ayampe. We were so glad to be there as this place is one of my favourite places in Ecuador. We didn’t get to visit any schools because all the schools were finished for the year but we did show the documentary and did a short talk the night before the clean up. This clean up worked really well. We had a lot of volunteers showed up and the whole town came to clean the beach with us. We ended collecting 246 kg and the difference of weight wasn’t in the amount of rubbish we found but because we didn’t find much glass on this beach. We also worked on a mural and it turned out great. This being our third mural, we did it in less time and much more efficiently. We also left a mural in Engabao and Montanita.
Looking back on the whole experience it was a crazy but very successful time. When we had the idea of doing this project all we really wanted was to get people motivated, to change that attitude we seem to have now more than ever, of watching our lives through screens and feeling that with a like or a comment we are creating change. We wanted to make people understand that change happens when we act and that it is in our power to make things happen.
It gives us great sense of achievement that our project got lots of attention and got people to start noticing the rubbish on our beaches and maybe even encourage some of them to pick it up. That for us is very promising and gives us hope that there can be change.
On the other hand, our experience during this whole month was also shocking and an eye opener. We got to see first hand how the government operates, how disorganized they can be and realizing that there is so much to be done in Ecuador in order to get this problem a bit better. We also felt like we were out of our depth when having to manage a group of volunteers and having to make all the big decisions as well as answer questions that maybe we weren’t that prepared for like : How do we go about solving the waste issue in Ecuador?
I can honestly say that the whole experience left us feeling a bit deflated but luckily before we left we were able to leave behind a well established group of volunteers lead by Cecilia who will continue to do beach clean ups every month and visiting beach towns and schools around the country. Although we won’t be physically there, we’ll still be in touch and seeing that it runs well and we will continue doing our part wherever we go, picking up every bit of plastic we see, refusing as many plastic products as we can and doing our doormats with the bottletops we find along the way.
If I have to pinpoint one thing that this whole experience taught me was that when you believe in something strong enough and you’re determined to make it happen, it will happen. And I believe strongly in these words of Margarete Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful commited citizens can change the world. Indeed , it is the only thing that ever has.”