On the beaches of Ostende, Gastón Caminata picks up trash before and after he goes surfing. It’s a ritual he started eight years ago in Tahiti when psyching up to paddle out at Teahupo’o, one of the heaviest waves in the world.
“When I saw such a big wave and thought I could die here, I told myself, ‘I’m going to ask the ocean for permission to have fun in the waves by cleaning up the beach before I go out,’” he said. When he got in, he did another clean-up to give thanks.
Back home in Argentina, Caminata continued the ritual and rallied others to do the same. It has caught on, and today he struggles to fill a bag with trash in Ostende, even after a busy summer day.
Caminata, 47, never thought this would be possible. Shortly before his trip to Teahupo’o, he was elected head of the local chamber of commerce, and concerns were raised that the griminess of the beaches could deter tourism, a linchpin of the economy for Ostende and neighbouring Cariló, Pinamar and Valeria del Mar. Caminata, who runs two Mexican restaurants, decided to do something about it. At an annual fishing competition in Ostende, he went out with friends to pick up trash, and in two hours they filled the back of his pick-up.
He was baffled, especially by all the plastics. “I didn’t see the trash before, but when you start talking about the issue, all of a sudden you see it,” Caminata said in an interview on the balcony of his beach-front house where he grows tomatoes in car tyres he’s found washed up on the sand.
The clean-up caused a stir, and the following year he found only two plastic cups, two plastic bags and 10 cigarette butts at the event.
Even so, Caminata knew more had to be done. “When we clean up a beach, it is like putting a name on one star in the universe. Just one. We have hundreds of thousands more,” he said.
Over the past decade, he’s changed his lifestyle and written a book on caring for the environment, La Mejor Inversión es en el Ambiente. He lives simpler to consume less plastic packaging, composts his organic waste and drinks only tap water. He’s gone vegetarian and created a vegan menu at his restaurants, in line with data, such as from Kick the Habit: A UN Guide to Climate Neutrality, that show plant-based protein emits considerably less carbon dioxide than animal protein.
He serves margaritas with metal straws, and for years he refused to carry Corona due to the large carbon footprint of importing the beer from Mexico. He has since found a supplier that makes Mexican beer in Argentina.
Caminata also hits the beach most days to pick up what others have left behind or the ocean washed up.
“At first, picking up trash feels like work, but when you have done it you realise that it makes you happy to do something for others without asking for anything in return,” he said. “This is true happiness.”
REDUCING PLASTIC WASTE
Through his beach clean-ups, Caminata has come to realise that a major problem is single-use plastics such as bags, bottles and straws.
He’s not alone. Plastic waste has become a growing public concern in many countries since the 2016-17 release of A Plastic Ocean, a documentary on the buildup of plastics in the ocean and its impact on the environment and food and water supplies.
According to the California-based Plastics Ocean Foundation, 300 million tons of plastics are produced each year, of which 50 percent is used once and thrown away. More than eight million tons of this is dumped in the ocean annually, where it is ingested by fish, sea birds and other organisms, according to the UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
While plastic is cheap, light and versatile, it doesn’t degrade or decompose — and that means it can’t be tossed out. Otherwise it could wind up accumulating in the ocean in increasingly larger floating patches, or vortex. In the North Pacific, the patch is more than twice the size of France and contains almost 80,000 tons of garbage, according to recent research in Scientific Reports, a journal published by Nature magazine.
“We are at the point of environmental survival,” Caminata said.
His remarks on the dire need to save the environment from society’s throwaway culture have won him followers — and detractors. A woman recently accused him of wanting to take humanity back to Neanderthal times for suggesting people forgo napkins.
Caminata used to take offence at the criticism, but he has learned to shrug it off and to respect the time people need to understand the importance of protecting the environment.
More frequently, people ask to join his effort, but he tells them to take the cause to where they live, as this will multiply awareness and progress. His hope is that Argentines will catch the zero-waste bug and businesses here will open packaging-free supermarkets like Granel in Barcelona.
It’s starting to happen. Argentina’s Mamaland, for example, makes degradable and compostable plastics out of cornstarch, and more bakeries like L’épi Boulangerie use paper bags. 416 Snack Bar, a sort-of tapas joint in Buenos Aires, serves free filtered tap water.
As more businesses snub plastics, others will replicate it and this will reduce the production of single-use plastic littering the planet, Caminata said.
FINED FOR LITTERING
He said the transition may not be easy, saying his efforts have got him labelled by some as a tiresome eccentric to be avoided.
He’s also got into trouble. In 2016, he collected trash on the beach and dumped it on the steps of Pinamar’s town hall to try to get the mayor, Martín Yeza, to do more to clean the beaches. Yeza wasn’t impressed, and Caminata was fined 10,500 pesos for littering, at the time around US$500. Caminata met with Yeza to explain himself, but the fine wasn’t removed.
At first indignant, Caminata thought about what to do and came up with a plan. He took the story to the press and it reached the national newspapers, and then he set up a tent near town hall to ask people to donate 10 pesos to help pay the fine. Lines formed, and people double parked to contribute. Worried about the political fallout, the mayor issued a decree to scrap the fine and phoned Caminata to work together on environmental causes.
“This is the only way to raise awareness, by showing the problem,” Caminata said in hindsight. “If we leave the problem under the rug, when are we going to talk about the problem?”
A BAN ON PLASTIC BAGS
His campaigning has brought changes to Pinamar, the district encompassing Ostende and several neighbouring beach towns. In 2013, Pinamar became one of the first districts to ban plastic bags in Argentina. Those that don’t abide face fines and a four-day closure of their businesses. This summer, plastic cups and straws will no longer be allowed.
Caminata said some recycling efforts are making a difference, such as a partnership between Adidas and Parley for the Oceans to make clothes and footwear from plastic trash collected before it enters the ocean.
But he said saying no to plastics is a better way of reducing the waste that enters the ocean, and that companies will make the change.
“If we all stop buying soft drinks in plastic bottles, the company is going to sell it in glass,” he said.
He fears, however, that the pressure to produce more plastics will grow, including in Argentina. Oil companies are starting to develop Vaca Muerta, one of the world’s largest shale plays. It holds so much gas that producers like Chevron, Shell and YPF are looking for outlets to sustain future production growth, and one is as a feedstock for making the polyethylene that goes into bags and other throw-away plastics. The US, the first big producer of shale gas, is feeding more gas to chemical industry for just that purpose.
Caminata wants to raise more awareness, and he has tried to get stars like Lionel Messi involved. The national team captain has 88 million followers on Facebook, dwarfing Caminata’s reach by a huge margin.
But while Caminata, who briefly played professional football, hopes Messi responds to his request, he said he won’t be miffed if there’s no response.
“Nobody is going to take away from me this idea that I can change the world,” he said. “I’m an activist. I don’t say what we should do. I go out and do it.”