Volunteers start a major clean-up operation on the Camino de Santiago

by Deborah Cater
Major clean up operation on Camino de Santiago

On the occasion of the Holy Xacobeo Year, volunteers from different organisations start a campaign to remove waste from different parts of the Camino de Santiago, Spain’s most famous pilgrimage route.

The aim of the action is not only to clear the route of waste, but also to draw attention to the ‘environmental problem’ that litter poses. In Spain a special term has been coined for litter: ‘basuraleza’. A combination of the words ‘basura’ meaning waste and ‘naturaleza’ meaning nature. Conceived by the LIBERA project, it reflects a sad reality: the growing presence of waste in any natural space.

Waste that people leave haphazardly in forests, rivers or beaches. Or they throw it straight from the car onto the roadside. There is of course a lot of plastic in between, wrappers, cans, empty packaging, cigarette butts, wipes, glasses, bottles and a new common type of waste – the mask. But people also throw televisions, refrigerators, furniture or clothes into natural spaces.

The almost eternal life of a cigarette

After litter ends up in nature, it remains there for a while. For example, a cigarette butt takes between eight and 12 years to break down. In addition, the filter is made of cellulose acetate, a type of plastic. This material is not biodegradable. The cigarette butt the walker throws on the field or beach breaks into small pieces by solar energy, but never evaporates. This is simply converted into microplastics that end up in the subsurface, in rivers and eventually in the ocean. In addition, each cigarette butt also contains up to 400 contaminants, including heavy metals such as cadmium or arsenic which can contaminate up to 50 litres of fresh water or 10 litres of salt water.

Every year 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are left in public spaces worldwide. The NGO Ocean Conservancy recognises cigarettes make up 13% of all waste collected in its global campaign.

Face masks, the plastic in disguise

Face masks are called “plastic in disguise” by National Geographic. They are now an indispensable part of our lives. They are made of polypropylene fibres. Its degradation can take decades, even centuries. And with the fear of Covid, few dare to touch anything that has been in contact with another’s breath. Therein lies the danger. A single mask can release up to 173,000 microfibers into the sea every day. In addition, gulls, peregrine falcons or other bird species regularly get their legs stuck in the rubber bands.

An estimated 129 billion disposable masks are used every month, at a rate of three million per minute. Even if only a small part ends up as waste in nature, the enormous impact on the environment is imaginable.

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The sea as final destination

A paper napkin takes up to six weeks to break down. A piece of chewing gum, five years. A pair of sneakers, 200 years and a glass bottle about 4,000 years. All these residues pollute to a greater or lesser extent, increase the risk of forest fires, occupy the ground, hinder the natural growth of vegetation and threaten the fauna that eats or becomes entangled with them. In addition, they deteriorate the image of natural landscapes that should be kept in their original state.

The SEO/BirdLife LIBERA project, in which more than 1,100 organisations participate, aims to reduce the impact of left behind waste in nature and in various ecosystems.

A clean Camino for thousands of pilgrims

Within this project, the spring water company Cabreiroá (Ourense) is contributing this year by helping to clean up waste on the Camino de Santiago. It wants to show a clean Galicia to the thousands of pilgrims who will walk the roads to Santiago de Compostela. Under the slogan ‘We Make the Way’, several waste clearing days have already been organised along parts of the Camino Inglés and the Vía de la Plata. Similar actions are planned at other points of the various Jacobean routes.

Something that should never have been there

“Maybe it’s not your waste, but it’s everyone’s problem” is the slogan used to fuel environmental activism. Álvaro García de Quevedo, director of Cabreiroá says: “Consumers are increasingly aware of the environment. Our company aims to generate a positive impact on the environment. We see it as our responsibility to defend a nature without waste and we do this, for example, with initiatives such as 1m2 against waste”. Miguel López, director of SEO/Birdlife, together with Cabreiroá wants to “end something that should never have been there, namely waste.”

Profile ‘basuralezadora’

There is no clear profile of the ‘basuralezadores’ (waste producers). However, a study by the LIBERA project shows that in Spain, especially young people show a greater tendency to leave rubbish behind. First of all, because they spend more time outdoors with friends. According to explanations from social psychology, this is also because they are not attached to places they don’t really know, such as quiet places just outside their hometown, thoroughfares or roadsides. That’s why more citizenship is needed, the organisers say, and more awareness about the environmental impacts caused by these seemingly small gestures.

It doesn’t matter where the waste is left. Rain and wind cause some of these substances to fly away, seep into the subsoil or wash away in rivers and the sea. This causes irreversible damage, infection or death to the fauna that ingests them; but also to the higher species in the trophic chain. Also humans, when eating fish or shellfish, for example.

That’s not all. Accumulation of debris in rivers and drains can cause flooding. Glass in the sun can start wildfires and pollute entire ecosystems, causing forced migrations. Some species will die by not adapting. Others will become invasive in the host ecosystem. And it all starts with that broken can, bag, or bottle that someone didn’t put in a rubbish bin.

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