How a long walk helped me understand our rubbish problem

published in The Saturday Age December 28, 2019

Early this year I took a four-day hike in South East Tasmania. The Three Capes track took four and a half years to make with the combined care, skill and artistry of a tribe of rangers, scientists, builders and artisans. Determined to stay true to place, much of the know-how is Tasmanian. At Port Arthur, a barista tells us to look for a particular section on day three. “I built those steps,” he says, “It took 18 months. I loved every minute.”

A hefty $495 price-tag goes with even the mid-range accommodation for adults, where you only have to bring your clothing and food. The child and concession rate is $396. In a three-tiered structure there are also minimal camping facilities with tent sites and a high-end catered version.

When I first hear that 48 walkers are booked into bunkhouse cabins with open deck areas and dining facilities, I am aghast. This does not conform with the old-school bushwalking practices I’ve been inducted into. I am suspicious about luxuries, and too many people. But I’m also relieved to be able to actually go––with the cabins and kitchens there is no need to carry a tent, stove or sleeping mat. My pack is under 10 kilos and I get the physio’s tick of approval.

On the first night, standing in the kitchen-dining area of the huts, I am won over.  

Since the track opened on 21 December 2015, the oldest person to complete the walk is 91. She came with two of her adult children–in their 70s. New to bushwalking in our group are a middle-aged man and his daughter, a trio of students, two couples in their sixties and two families with primary school-aged children and teenagers. Our group ranges from babes riding in carry packs through to retirees.

There are layers of questions around commodifying the shared heritage of national parks. Substantial price-tags on accommodation are prohibitive for many and a maximum of ten tent platforms are available for bushwalkers carrying their own gear. More camping is offered at Fortescue Bay.

Meanwhile the arguments about access for a wide range of experience and abilities are hard to refute. A friend who has both osteo and rheumatoid arthritis says, “I could not have gone on this hike if the facilities weren’t there. I am lucky enough to be able to afford it.”

The hike itself is awe-inspiring­­­­­–you do wish it was freely available to everyone.

Each day there is a new set of vistas and changing vegetation. The track is marked by beautiful stopping places with benches and seats created by Tasmanian artisans in response to themes and stories-of-place.

To begin the hike, the boat journey takes you across the waters from Port Arthur and nudging along spectacular coastline you will soon walk above. A pair of sea eagles circles on clifftops high above us.

At the accommodation on the first night we talk with other walkers. Like us they are making use of the deck chairs and yoga mats. There’s a library of reference books and stories about the region.

Within the larger group of 48 are 13 of us who have booked together–friends and friends-of-friends. Those on an earlier boat than ours stopped to watch an albatross. But already the tale is full of sorrow. There are vastly reduced numbers of these wild and ancient sea birds. Often, when they feed themselves and their young, they consume plastic and fishing line and it builds in their stomachs until they starve to death. Most types of plastic never break down. It’s a form of eternal life nobody wants and it is floating in continent-sized garbage patches across the oceans.

The experience of the walk awakens even the most stubborn humans to the realities of rubbish. The rangers give a talk each night and the information is clear. You can’t allow this many people to have access to remote landscapes and baulk at dealing with the refuse. We learn up-close about rubbish. Food composting is possible in the purpose-built kitchens but the hard rubbish has to come back out with you.

When you are carrying a backpack and aiming to keep it light, you become deeply familiar with its contents. The hard-plastic meat tray from our first night’s barbecue becomes my daily not-very-desirable companion–complete with the plastic wrap that covered it, and that strange squishy pouch that sits under the pre-packed meat. The cellophane lolly wrappings and biscuit boxes are less disturbing and the vegetables can be eaten almost in their entirety.

Grimly each morning I re-pack the meat tray, I am not letting it out of my sight.

In the evening I chat with a fellow walker who works for a rubbish removal company with an Australia-wide reach. She says the company are seeking opportunities to further educate the community in how to dispose of recyclables.

Basically the rule of thumb is to ask yourself what you’d prefer to find if you were on the receiving end. She tells me about the work of the ‘pickers’ who have to stand at the conveyor belts and pull out materials that contaminate the recycling. Pizza boxes with food bits still stuck to them are a common culprit.

I didn’t realise you should remove the lids from jars and bottles and I am still not clear about which types of plastic go where. I blush when I think of how carelessly I have treated the process. It’s a stretch to accommodate more rigorous rubbish sorting, but this hike is already stretching me.

Before it is dark, I feel the blissful tiredness that can follow the steady exercise of walking. I sink into the camp bunk with a new gratitude.

The next morning when I use the toilet facilities, I read the notices on the walls. There are familiar instructions about taking a bush wee, including the distance from the track and waterways you are requested to respect. Taking a bush poo is more complicated, involving a trowel and digging and burying – it’s far preferable to use the drop-toilets but they’re a bit graphic and confronting. When our children were little and we camped in national parks, they called drop-toilets ‘fall-down toilets.’ They still make me wince, but not as much as the thought of that close-up business with the trowel.

The drop-toilets at the campsite have huge plastic collection pods. These 800-litre sealed containers take the accumulated sewerage from the hike accommodations. Helicopters are required to fly the sewerage pods out. It is a costly process, and yes, say the rangers, this has been extensively researched. You can’t compost the volumes of sewerage from these visitor numbers without impacting the soil and vegetation.

On the toilet wall mention is made of the hard-core hikers who carry poo tubes made from plastic agricultural pipe. Resolved to carry out their own waste they scoop it into these airtight screw-top tubes. I flinch again.

The next day as I watch the 800-litre plastic pod swinging above from the noisy chopper, my admiration grows for the hard-core tube-carrying hikers. The rangers have warned us to keep clear of the helicopters. The thought of the cargo suspended beneath them is deterrent enough.

Out on the track we glimpse rock escarpments that take our breath away. Who knew Tasmania’s Cape Pillar has the highest cliffs in Australia?

At the end of the four days we swim in the jewel-like Fortescue Bay. The shuttle bus collects us and snakes its way back to Port Arthur. The driver drops us next to the garbage depot at the back end of the Visitors Centre. A large clear plastic bag receives the rubbish from our packs. Next to the bus on the asphalt, our bag of hard garbage looks forlorn and awkward. Someone has put in a one-use-only straw hat. Soon it will be on its way to landfill.

Posing for a group photo, I am elated and sobered at the same time. Over these few days I’ve had a dose of astonishments which have filled me with wonder. In the words of an old wisdom tale this makes me want to ‘live better than before’. 

I also know that ‘living better than before’ is not a lofty ideal, it has to do with how we generate and dispose of rubbish. There’s not a lot of romance in rubbish, but there is no romance in a landscape devoid of creatures or degraded by garbage.

I think of the albatross and the continent sized Pacific garbage ‘patch’. I feel the need of some kind of ritual of farewell that helps me know I am crossing a threshold. Having seen this beauty I cannot live as though it does not exist. Having glimpsed my garbage, I cannot pretend I am not responsible for it.

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