The Man That Has Been Picking Plastic From Beaches For 7 Years
By Paula Alvarado, Treehugger Team the 5 Gyres South Pacific Project
Francis Picco arrived in Easter Island, Chile, from France for a vacation 15 years ago and never left. The reason was a local woman who became his wife and a new found peace he couldn’t trade for anything else.
But with the passing of years, he started to see his paradise getting wasted by the growing number of plastic debris that reached the shores of the beaches. Photo degraded remains of crates, fishing lines, buoys and all types of consumer products got to the island not only from locals’ eventual lack of responsibility, but from everywhere in the world thanks to ocean gyres and currents.
And when every other person would have just looked away and move on with their life, he started to clean up everybody’s business.
First with his wife and then alone, Picco, who has adopted the native name Tutuma, has been recovering garbage from Easter Island’s coastline for over seven years. However, after having cleaned up tons of toxic materials that not only made the island less attractive to tourists but also posed a threat to human and animal health, he says his efforts haven’t received enough recognition or support.
The municipality pays him a modest salary to do beach cleanups a few times a week, and a local hotel provides him with big garbage bags to put the waste away, but he says he needs more people and proper transport to do the work. He now does everything on foot and lifts the heavy full bags up to the routes where they are taken away by the garbage trucks by himself.
Still, he says he enjoys the exercise and cannot get out of his conscience telling him to continue doing the work.
The bags full of plastic that can be seen from the route when the French man is working. Photo source: Paula Alvarado.
We met Picco at his country house near the Rano Raraku monument on Easter, a mountain that used to be the main “factory” of the mystical Moai statues, on the last day we had at the island, in our expedition through the South Pacific to explore plastic pollution in the ocean with the 5 Gyres project.
The contact, beach cleanup and interview with the activist was part of the local outreach the NGO did inland, which included meetings with the municipal authorities, press interviews in the local radio and TV channel, and a talk at a school, all with the goal of raising awareness in the community about the problem of plastic pollution.
The positive response of the locals and interest to learn more was the perfect closure for the trip and gave a new sense to it: scientific research that turns into concrete action for the people who are affected by the problem (let’s remember Easter Island receives plastic pollution from the South Pacific ocean gyre).
Anna Cummins, 5 Gyres co-founder, talking at Easter Island school. Photo source: Paula Alvarado.
“We started this trip, the last of the expeditions through the world’s five subtropical gyres, not knowing what to expect. For the first days we weren’t seen much plastic pollution, and we felt a mixture of joy for having a cleaner ocean and of surprise. Ten days into it though, we started seen similar density to what we’ve seen in the other gyres: every single sample yielded this confetti of broken down plastic particles. So we know definitively that plastic pollution is a global problem now,” concluded Anna Cummins, co-founder of 5 Gyres.
Future plans for the NGO include the consolidation of the findings from all the previous expeditions to set baseline information about the concentration of plastic in the oceans, new expeditions (possibly, to the western area of the North Pacific gyre, the eastern part of the North Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean), and land-based work in other environmental issues as well, among others.
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