Last month I traveled to Manzanillo, Mexico, as part of a unique student exchange program in which students in San Pablo, California and students in Manzanillo compare their observations about the problematic trash and marine debris in their watersheds—and ultimately the Pacific Ocean—as well as their recommendations for solving these problems. The program is sponsored by a grant from the San Pablo Community Foundation, and is part of a “sister city” program between San Pablo and Manzanillo. During my classroom visits in Manzanillo, the students helped identify the most important elements of their local watersheds and bays, yet I was surprised by how few of them knew the names of the elements of their geography. We decided to take a road trip to the highest point along the shore. From that vantage point it was easy to see the Mountain of “Toro” (bull) and the river of La Boquita on its way to a small lagoon (also called “La Boquita” or little mouth). We could also see the entire Bay of Manzanillo and its sister Bay of Santiago, which together form the shape of an open heart. The following day the students started writing letters to the San Pablo students with a renewed sense of pride in the beauty of their Bay. Many of them wrote in their letters that their home was located in the middle of the heart of Manzanillo Bay, and that they were going to help keep it clean so that the unknown recipient of the letter would admire and fall in love with their heart-shaped hometown when they came to visit.
On our way back from the top of the mountain we saw lots of small roadside vendors, with trails of plastic left by customers. One of the students favorite snack during recess is green mangos, which come sliced and covered in lime and spices and served in plastic bags with straws for drinking the juices. People there depend on bottled water, since the local municipal water is not considered drinkable. This results in a large amount of plastic trash and litter left on the school campus every day. Given the lack of recycling and composting infrastructure, students discard their bottles and paper in the garbage; it is then taken to the municipal dump—or lost during the trip, ending up in the bay.
Whenever we see these situations and think about possible solutions, we always go back to the same idea: we need less plastic in our lives! Whether the source of trash is chips and snacks wrappers in San Pablo California or plastic bags and straws in Mexico, the problem comes down to too much packaging and convenience food containers. A simple durable cup for the mango slices and a metal spoon instead of a straw will allow the students to enjoy their spicy treat in Mexico; replacing the chips with an apple could do the trick in San Pablo, while at the same time reducing the students’ intake of unhealthy food.
In the San Francisco Bay we are miles ahead in the amount of materials we recycle and compost compared to our counterparts in Manzanillo. But the truth is that the solution to our plastic pollution problems will not come from managing our trash better. It will come from reinventing our lifestyles so that we do not produce so much trash in the first place. For the love of our bays and the ocean we encourage the students to always choose to reduce or rethink what they buy to limit the amount of plastic that ends up by accident in our water bodies and contaminates the beautiful Pacific Coast and our shoreline. We can be heroes every day if we just stop to think about the ocean with an open heart before buying any plastic disposables—and truly say “goodbye” to trash.