Written by Erica Cirino
ON LEG TWO FROM AZORES TO ANTIGUA WITH COPERNICUS MARINE SERVICE

When weather delayed the departure of eXXpedition’s Leg 2 off from San Miguel to Antigua, the crew took advantage of their extra days linked up to land to learn more about the island’s plastic waste situation. This involved a day trip to the MUSAMI Ecopark, San Miguel’s primary waste management center, taking in 95 percent of all municipalities’ trash on the island, at an astounding rate of 200-250 tons of trash per day.

To get there, we piled into two taxis and drove up through winding hills along the coast. There was a bunch of trash blowing along the roadsides—and then, presumably, into the sea around us. The Ecopark had torn plastic bags strewn on its streets and an enormous flock of seagulls swarming over the park’s one open landfill, feeding on any edible scraps of trash.

Three female members of MUSAMI’s staff led our all-female group through their facility, from the waste-sorting warehouse to the composting fields to the landfill. We donned bright yellow vest and hid from the rain beneath bright green umbrellas.

Inside the warehouse, employees clad in identical yellow vests, with arms wrapped in cloth bandages and plastic bags whisked metal cans and cardboard boxes into bins. Their bodies didn’t appear well protected from the chemicals and sharp edges that come with our trash. Recycling was completely sorted by hand. Trash is recycled at a rate of 27% on San Miguel, according to the plant coordinators. So, much of what’s tossed out is sent to landfill.

Outside the warehouse, gardening waste—tree stumps, leaves, cow manure—were piled in furrows so hot inside they steamed in the cool drizzly weather. But all household organic waste is sent to the landfill. We learned that the Ecopark has one enormous landfill that’s been used from 2001 to 2016. this 1 million m² site is so full it’s been closed. A second landfill, 330 thousand m²  large, is now filled up from 20 meters below ground and towers 14 meters above ground; it’s quickly on its way to full.

On an island, space is especially valuable. It’s clear the issue of space is becoming especially prescient on San Miguel. And, as we learned, the space humanity has to store trash is running out worldwide. The plant coordinators say they’ve been pushing for a waste-to-energy incineration plant to be built on the island since 2012, to help prevent more trash from being landfilled. But due to pushback from local policymakers, construction of the plant has stalled, leaving San Miguel drowning in mountains of trash.

But is incineration really the answer? Or could we become more conscious of our consumption of goods wrapped in plastic (and other packaging)—and use less?

“We need to change our attitude,” Natascha said as we walked away from the landfill in the rain. “Just because the trash is out of our sight, doesn’t mean it’s actually gone. We could do much more to reduce our use of plastic.”