My legs are glued with sweat to the sticky, plastic-covered bus seat, yet I am grateful to have a seat at all. I’m barreling down a bumpy highway in Nicaragua in a retired American school bus. I lean my head a little closer to the window to welcome the fresh air forcing itself inside and whipping my hair into tiny blonde twisters. I suddenly feel very bad for this bus. He spent years carting around unruly school children as they carved their initials into the backs of his seats and hid gum under his windows. Instead of retiring to a nice, empty lot and letting the grass grow up around him, this bus has now been deemed a “chicken bus” and is crammed well beyond capacity with Nicaraguans jostling each other for more space and the occasional clammy gringo travelers trying to look like they belong.
The bus makes many stops along this sweaty sojourn. “Stops” is a generous term. The bus slows barely enough to throw a few people out and wedge a few more in. At each “stop” vendors clamber onto the bus with baskets and bowls filled with sugary, mysterious treats or cold Fantas and Cokes. These stony, non-claustrophobic vendors hurl their bodies through impossibly small spaces, making their way down the packed aisle shouting “Dulces, dulces, refrescos fríos!”. My boyfriend, Sam, being the adventurous eater that he is, loves to indulge the bustling peddlers and sample the mysterious baked goods. This day we purchase something that resembles mini pretzel sticks. We unwrap the clear plastic bag tied in a knot at the top and begin our familiar guessing game of what we were eating. “I thought it would be savory, but it’s sweet”. “I think I just ate a sesame seed”. “Are these homemade or did they take them out of some packaging and put them in this baggie?”.
As I’m digging my tongue around my teeth in a futile attempt to save myself from a cavity, I notice the mother and son sitting in front of me. They purchase a Coke and some snacks. First, the mother unscrews the soda lid with a satisfying, fizzy hiss and then promptly tosses the lid out the window nonchalantly. My jaw opens a little in disbelief. They pass the soda back and forth until it is finished and then throw the empty bottle out the window. The son finishes his chips, and guess where he puts the empty plastic bag? That’s right- afuera de la ventana. I swiftly stand up in shock and indignation and lean over the seat towards them.
I’m not thinking, I’m fuming. Sam sees the look on my face and quickly pulls me back down into my seat before I can dole out any chastising words in my stilted Spanish. I sputter angrily to Sam that someone needs to tell them they can’t just use this earth as a trash can. Think of the example she is setting for her son! “Brooke, what are you going to say to them that’s going to change their behavior? There is no room in their difficult lives to care much about the environment. They have bigger worries,” Sam gently reminds me. My shoulders slump forward in defeat, knowing that he is right. I lean my head against the smudged, glass window and stare at the passing fields and forests. It is a plastic landscape whirring by.
Fences are decorated with tattered, colorful plastic bags that have been blown here and there until becoming lodged. Perhaps they were thrown out of a bus window, or they could have been discarded properly into a wastebasket and later escaped from one of the huge mounds of trash at the open-air dumps. Litter lines ditches. Pigs root through piles of trash that are waiting to be burned outside of dirt-floor homes. Waves carry plastic bags ballooned like jellyfish onto the shore.
Nicaragua is a third-world country that is still awakening after a long, cruel dictatorship and is struggling to find its place in a modern, globalized world. Plastic is overused because industrialized, first-world countries, like America, inundate their small country with single-use plastics. Large companies use plastics as a means to deliver chips, soda, and other snack foods to the consumer’s mouth. These profiting companies claim no responsibility for disposal of the vast amounts of plastics they deliver to impoverished countries, which have no waste management systems to handle all the plastic packaging. Through the 1990s Nicaragua used their large lakes as dumps and directly discarded waste into them. Finding a way to properly deal with trash is an ongoing problem. Although strikingly beautiful despite the pollution, the plastic landscape continues to stretch over Nicaragua’s once pristine environment.
Over 5 trillion plastic bags are produced annually worldwide. I had to use the word trillion because I could hardly keep that many zeroes straight. The vast majority of these bags will be used only once and then be thrown away. Less than 1% will be recycled. Americans use more than our fair share, consuming 100 billion plastic bags per year. While the mother and son on the bus in Nicaragua may be contributing to plastic pollution, we are just as guilty in America. We can place the blame on no single person, country, or government. The plastic bag burden is a load we all share equally and must solve equally.
I left Nicaragua with a lingering feeling of defeat over their plastic problem. What could I possibly do to help them? I sat with my defeat for a while once I returned to Oregon. I stared at it, talked to it, yelled at it, and cried at it. Then I got tired of it and decided to do something about it. I stopped thinking so big and started thinking smaller. I may not be able to make a difference in Nicaragua, but I can make a difference at home with my family and friends. We can make a difference together by changing our habits. It’s a simple request, to carry a reusable bag. To say “no thank you” to plastic bags and bring your own. However, we often forget to bring bags with us to the store or leave them in the trunk of our cars. We say to ourselves, “next time, I’ll remember.” We let ourselves off the hook.
In first-world countries we have the luxury of being able to care about the environment. Compared to the mother on the bus in Nicaragua, our lives are lavish and grandiose. We need to start holding ourselves more accountable for our actions. Leave a pile of reusable bags in your car. Put them somewhere visible. When you’re finished unloading groceries, walk them back out to your car. Don’t make giving up plastic bags a sacrifice, make it a habit.
Every time I pass my reusable bags to the clerk at the grocery store, I think of the Nicaraguan mother and son. I remember my flash of white hot anger on the bus that day and chuckle in embarrassment. No problems were ever solved with anger or blame. So instead, I say thank you for the opportunity to use a reusable bag, I appreciate the treat of being able to think about the wellbeing of our environment, and I send a little love and healing down to Nicaragua.