Swimming with Trash in the Caribbean

Plastic and rubber sandals with barbed wire.

This piece originally appeared on Edge Effects.

Since I was a child, my family has always avoided the annoyance of waiting for the trash collector by using natural means during the rainy periods. “Tíralo a la calle, que el agua se lo lleva” [Throw it on the street, the water will take it away], my grandma would say. Bundles of household trash would roll down together, carried by the stream, and eventually disappear. My grandmother was a wise woman, literate in the name of every plant that might cure or alleviate any pain or discomfort, but she never questioned the journey of a plastic bag. Neither did I nor the rest of my family. For us, the garbage was already in its right place as long as it was away from us. But was it?

Swimming in the Caribbean waters was virtually impossible since the most unimaginable waste—from bottles to menstrual pads—would join us frequently. I remember blaming other inconsiderate beach visitors for those unpleasant encounters but rarely connected it with our behavior at home, only ten miles away from the sea. Perhaps this personal story from Cuba is a familiar one in many neighboring islands, where the presence of garbage has become an intrinsic part of the Caribbean landscape, or wastescape. This scene might surprise a foreign eye looking for the paradisiacal beach depicted in the tourism brochure, but it is to be expected considering the poor waste management in the region.

These spaces represent what the entire planet could become when terrestrial and marine landscapes become wastescapes.

Bajos de Haina in the Dominican Republic, for example, often appears on the news as the most polluted coastal community in the world. Moreover, while humans produce over two billion tons of garbage per year, the Caribbean islands occupy a grim position among these statistics since ten of the thirty world’s largest polluters per capita are from this area—shocking data for such a small region. Conversely, the Caribbean is also at the top of more optimistic lists, still considered one of the most important biodiversity hotspots on the planet due to its high number of native plants and vertebrates.

The international community has warned Caribbean peoples about environmental threats like biodiversity loss, the impact of tourism, illegal commerce of species, and habitat destruction. In the last few decades, waste has become another escalating concern. Like most of the region’s problems, this phenomenon has its roots in the heaviest burden of Caribbean history: colonization and colonialism. Geographer Max Liboiron has categorically declared that pollution is colonialism, where the land is considered a resource to “extract from” and a place to “put in” the leftovers of industrialization and human consumption, mostly from the global north. In the Caribbean, the disposal of material objects—often byproducts of colonial remnants, imperialism, and globalization—plays an increasing role in its landscape degradation. 

Blue ocean water in the Caribbean with mountains in the background and heaps of waste on the shore
Piles of garbage on a beach in St. Maarten. Photo by Fabi Fliervoet, 2009.
[Image description: A beach filled with piles of garbage with aquamarine water in the backdrop. There are green mountains in the background.]

From a bodily perspective, it seems natural to get rid of any form of excretion, rejecting excesses and making sure that they are as far away as possible. Modern societies share similar principles, and there is often a correlation between the invisibility of waste and the hierarchy of society: the higher up on the social ladder, the farther away from disposals. The problem becomes more dramatic when considering the side effects of globalization, and the same logic of discarding toward the periphery finds its parallel in a polarized world where the global north has a dumpster in the other half of the planet.

The Caribbean bears witness to how this dumping logic can adopt varied forms. An explicit example of global north dumping in the south is the direct disposal of hazardous materials cynically masked as fertilizers. In comparison, the flock of massive tourism is a less conspicuous source of pollution, since it paradoxically keeps these islands’ economies afloat while creating significant pressure in an accelerated circle of consuming and discarding. This situation and the evident lack of proper solid waste management in this region contribute to a disturbing landscape of pollution that has not escaped the critical eye of artistic representation.

It is possible to follow the intricacies of trash with the series of wastescapes that the sought-after Cuban artist Tomás Sánchez has been producing since the 1990s. Scenes where mountains of trash are invading the pristine Caribbean landscape or landscapes are framed by garbage often appear in his work and set an extraordinary landmark for the inclusion of this phenomenon in a Caribbean collective imaginary. The very fact that Sánchez has mainly these two subjects in his extensive collection—pristine landscapes and suggestive wastescapes—reveals a tension that ought to be further explored in Caribbean culture, especially the evocations of the sublime when beholding these overwhelming and disturbing paintings.

The Cuban artist depicts polarized scenarios as idealized “pure” landscapes and dystopian corrupted wastescapes. They reveal the price that must be paid to maintain aseptic environments and the rapid proliferation and massive distribution of these wastescapes as sacrifice zones. His work underscores contemporary concerns regarding ecological crises, especially in the depictions of waste as one of the threats to an already declining global environment.

Another relevant figure is Dominican artist Tony Capellán, whose installation Mar Caribe takes one of the simplest objects, flip-flops—which are associated with the western trope of escaping to the paradisiacal island—to create a space of critique. The softness of the plastic foams symbolizes the tourist industry while the straps made of barbed wire serve as a metaphor for the socioeconomic hardships faced by the Caribbean peoples. This dialogue is also encouraged by the history of these sandals, worn by the humble and poor villagers near the Ozama River, showing how both, human and shoe, worked tirelessly every day until the latter became disposable.

Numerous blue and green flip-flop sandals placed close together to resemble sea water rest in a frame on a wooden floor
Art installation titled “Mar Caribe” [Caribbean Sea] by Tony Capellán. Photo from RISD Museum, 1996.
[Image description: plastic and rubber sandals in various shades of blue, green, and aquamarine with barbed wire laying next to each other on top of a large rectanglar piece on a wooden floor.]

As Elizabeth DeLoughrey has argued in Allegories of the Anthropocene, Capellán’s work plays with the greenish-blue tones that resemble a sea of plastic, representing the beauty of the ocean while also critiquing the commodification of the Caribbean—a process that reduces the region to a touristic cliché as it deals with social and economic struggles. Growing up in Cuba, I lost more than one pair of flip-flops in the aguaceros (downpours), and I always wondered where they might have ended up. Contrary to what I probably imagined, they could have ended up taking part in an art installation. This simple experience highlights the multiple possibilities of transformation for an object, turned into trash, then reclaimed and redeemed through adding artistic value and entering the elevated realm of aesthetics. 

In addition to unwelcome encounters with trash on a filthy beach, there is yet another frightening type of human object found in natural spaces throughout the Caribbean: tokens of brujería, or witchcraft. Sometimes biodegradable items such as crafted coconut shells or sacrificed animals—although often wrapped in a plastic bag or something more durable like a pretty plastic doll—could make me flee the beach faster than anything else. Almost everybody, including the biggest skeptics, avoids these items because they carry curses against enemies or wicked promises to gain love, success, or health—matters in which no one should interfere. Even when modern life has changed the dynamics of these practices, one principle remains: Afro-Cuban rituals must primarily take place in nature. Putting these objects in bodies of water has spiritual meaning because rivers are the house of Oshun (the goddess of love) and the sea is the dwelling place for Yemaya (the mother of waters). Alternatively, these objects are placed close to ancestors, in the earth and near tree roots. The inevitable force of modernity has turned these items into “sacred waste or holy trash,” now enmeshed into the complex world of contemporary Caribbean wastescapes. 

Trees with large roots surrounded by soil, green plants, and a small totem of a bearded person
Babalu-Aye, orisha or spirits, associated with healing practices in Afro-Cuban traditions. Photo by Asger Broendum, 2017.
[Image description: Two trees with large roots surrounded by different green plants. Inbetween, a figure is standing.]

In the Caribbean, garbage occupies an immense amount of space, primarily material but also gradually creeping into imaginaries of place in culture and philosophy. It could be related to the fact that every object ever made by humans has the potential to and will likely become part of a garbage dump. Only usage can determine a temporal and finite value that nowadays, in the era of the Great Acceleration and unprecedented detachment, is alarmingly ephemeral. Then again, any object could be identified as art or magic or even be reinterpreted as history in the avid eyes of archaeologists.

Among scholars discussing waste in the Caribbean, Édouard Glissant’s powerful image of “balls and chains gone green” still resting in the bottom of the Atlantic appear frequently. They remind us that what could be considered trash due to abandonment is often connected to a wider history—in Glissant’s verse, one of violence, fear, slavery, death, and interoceanic voyage. The past makes us wonder about the future, about the marks left on this planet, and the bizarre relationship between the spaces where humans dwell and the irreversible damage that these same humans are bringing upon it.

The weight of this matter extends beyond scientific discourse and into cultural discussions about interspecies tensions and planetary dwelling. The interdisciplinary field of environmental humanities, for example, first embraced the now-popular term Anthropocene as a critical frame to think how the present epoch bears the indelible mark of anthropogenic activity on the planet’s strata. However, some political ecology scholars have recently challenged the limits of the term and even proposed to think of this epoch as the Wasteocene, defined by the multiple ways in which dominant groups and oppressive systems, rather than a homogeneous human species, perpetuate waste and wasting relations.

The presence of garbage has become an intrinsic part of the Caribbean landscape.

It is not hard to picture how future archaeological endeavors about the twenty-first century will uncover a footprint of plasticforever chemicals, concrete, metal alloys, and nuclear waste. So far, human activity has already produced more of these manufactured materials than the entire biomass on Earth and even surpassed atmospheric limits as a “space junkyard” lingers in the low orbit of the planet. “Strange” materials, made from unlikely combinations and molecular manipulations, contribute to the human legacy.

Choosing the Caribbean as a pretext to write these lines about the challenges of waste is not an arbitrary decision. Its archipelagic layout invites us to consider islands as small worlds enduring human stress upon natural environments and to reflect on nature’s capacity to cope with a trend of accelerated consumerism. These spaces represent what the entire planet could become when terrestrial and marine landscapes are substituted with threatening images of wastescapes. By contemplating personal experiences, cultural-religious practices, and artistic representations of the overwhelming presence of garbage in the Caribbean, I want to motivate scholars, activists, and the wider public to collaborate and envision new ways to think about waste. This ultimately means a deeper public discussion about the troubled relationship between the excess and uneven distribution of waste.

*Cover image: Art installation titled “Mar Caribe” [Caribbean Sea] by Tony Capellán. Photo from RISD Museum, 1996.

[*Cover image description: Closeup of numerous plastic and rubber sandals in various shades of blue, green, and aquamarine with barbed wire.]

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hameeteman.

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