Through Turkey and Trash on the Bike

I took my vacation in Turkey this year. I brought my bicycle so I could ride the back roads through farmland, up into the ruins and down to the coastline. Traveling by bicycle gets me in touch with a country unlike any other sort of traveling. It integrates me into the sounds and smells of a place and gives me the freedom to stop at any moment to take in the sights.

Unfortunately, during my 620-mile through Turkey, some of the sights I took in involved massive amounts of trash.

I can’t say this surprised me as I see trash often while biking back countries. I’ve often thought about rigging a trash bucket to my bicycle so that I could carry one of those long claw-arm trash grabbers to attack litter during my rides. I could then count how much trash one cyclist could recover during work commutes. I bet the amount would be shocking, but I just can’t commit to turning my faved two-wheel ride into the greenest trash truck in the region.

In Turkey, I did a lot of camping, and I am a member of the “leave it better than you found it” team. But like Alicia pondered how to begin removing the massive amounts of debris in the Tijuana Watershed, I didn’t know where to start at many of my one-night camp stops. So much trash covered the remote natural spaces that it felt inconsequential to pick up the litter in my immediate area.

But I still did.

I can’t even fathom how the trash found its way there. Clearly, some polluters dumped piles of plastic water bottles without any care. But in other places, random fast food wrappers, plastic bags, torn pieces of paper and more covered grassy areas, waterways, trees, parks, fields and roadways like fall leaves scatter down country roads.

Just like we experience a “first flush” phenomenon here in San Diego, Turkey’s dry climate and empty river beds lead me to believe that the first rains of the season will wash all that unclaimed litter into the canyons and waterways that will all eventually empty into the Aegean Sea. And just like that, the country will again be “clean” as the large bodies of water will eat up the trash.

But does the Aegean Sea really devour trash like Cookie Monster does a chocolate chip treat? Even though the first flush may appear to heal the scars of a country plagued by litter, we know that this trash eventually breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces and our aquatic friends feed on it.

My travel buddy and I tried refusing plastic bags offered by the merchants. Best we could in our extremely broken Turkish, we tried to say “no bag please” and we’d try to suggest we already had a reusable bag by pointing to the ones on our shoulders. But they just didn’t understand us. Now, I get the language barrier, as I saw how many people giggled when I’d say “thank you” and “hello.” I get it–I need a lot more Turkish practice. However, I saw clear as day that the single-use plastic bag habit has Turkish citizens under its wing like Big Tobacco caught smokers. It also made me realize how well our efforts here have made an impact.

Though we haven’t yet achieved a plastic bag ban, we have gotten close. And though not everyone carries a reusable bag, they become more popular every day. And though many merchants still offer single-use plastic bags, many give rewards for refusing them and most understand the need to go without.

Our watershed analyst recently returned from India and mentioned that the country banned bags a while ago and fees are in place to punish violators. To her, she said it seemed strange that our progressive country hasn’t yet made the law when a developing country like India bagged them years ago. I’m looking forward to hearing her perspective, which we’ll post to the blog in a few weeks.