We all love Instagram. When you wake up on a grey January morning, why would you bother looking out of the window at the mizzle, when you can scroll through Instagram and see people living their best lives on tropical beaches or epic journeys?
Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that Instagram isn’t real life. Influencers buy Instagram likes in bulk, pose in carefully crafted pictures, take hundreds of images to find the perfect shot, and then use filters to smooth out any blemishes.
Although most of us enjoy prying into other people’s perfect lives, there are, of course, the well publicised problems that come hand in hand with this pastime; i.e. comparing yourself to such high (and unachievable) standards. It’s so easy to forget that Instagram is often a complete illusion.
However, whilst we focus on how Instagram can project an illusion of somebody, or their life, we don’t talk much about the ‘illusion of place’. Which is exactly what I discovered when visiting Sri Lanka recently.
Sri Lanka is a bucket list destination for many travellers
During the past two years of Covid Lockowns, like many people, I spent months lusting after a tropical getaway. I settled on Sri Lanka after seeing the incredible images of the beaches, mountains, beautiful walks and epic train rides. So, as soon as lockdown ended, I bought a ticket, rented out my house, and took my luggage and laptop to what’s known as the Jewel of the Indian Ocean.
What struck me the moment I landed was that it didn’t quite look like the pictures.
I realise that is true of everywhere. But Sri Lanka has a real problem… with rubbish.
Sri Lanka’s plastic problem
Yes, the Island is beautiful. Yes, the people are so friendly. Yes, the food is delicious. But what Instagram doesn’t show you is the plastic bottles, bags and wrappers piled on the edge of every beach, strewn across beauty spots, and clogging up virtually every waterway.
I once heard a Sri Lankan friend make a tongue-in-cheek boast that Sri Lanka is like India, but without the garbage. Sadly, that is fast becoming a thing of the past.
It wasn’t only beaches that were full of plastic waste. One morning I went for a sea swim and collected 25 plastic bags floating in the sea, in just 15 minutes. Locals on the beach told me that it washes into the sea from Sri Lanka’s rivers, together with waste cast overboard from the many fishermen operating along the coast. When you visit the fishing beaches, it’s evident that the fishermen are a major contributor.
Five days after visiting the coast, I was climbing to the summit of Sri Lanka’s sacred mountain, Adam’s Peak. The volume of litter scattered everywhere was quite frankly depressing.
A tour of Sri Lanka wouldn’t be complete without visiting the backpacker’s favourite town, Ella. Sadly the rivers here not only flow with plastic waste, there is a stench of sewage, presumably discarded from the many buildings rapidly popping up to server the tourist market. The famous walk to Little Adam’s peak was again strewn with cast aside wrappers, as was the pathway to the Instagram influencer’s favourite spot, the Nine Arches railway bridge.
I moved on to Nuwara Eliya, in the centre of the tea country, and one of Sri Lanka’s top holiday spots for domestic holidaymakers. Perhaps I could escape from the litter here? I was wrong.
Gregory Lake may be the centrepiece of the town, but sheer volume of plastic rubbish clinging to its shores is truly shocking. It’s made worse by watching wealthy local tourists take pleasure cruises around the lake, unabashed by the wreckage, and happily adding to it at the end of a soft drink beverage. Paying to enter the lake is slightly galling. You can’t help but question what the entrance fee is spent on, if not sorting out the visibly pollution problem.
Sri Lanka’s waterways used as a waste disposal system
Hike up to any of the waterfalls around the town and surely you’ll find respite from the plastic pollution crisis. Think again. You’ll find piles of waste clinging to the banks, waiting to be washed downstream during the next deluge. If you’re lucky, you’ll find the odd dirty nappy left on a viewing platform, or a plastic bag containing the remains of last night’s dinner.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that the vast tea plantations would be somewhat plastic free. However, you would be wrong. The tea bushes merely hide the wrappers, cans and bottles strewn beneath them. You really don’t need to look far to find the next piece of plastic, unless you try hard to get away from anywhere touched by humans.
Given the state of affairs here, it’s a marvel that the country is full of professional Instagrammers and influencers. I watched in awe at the famous Nine Arches railway bridge as individuals and couples got changed into their colourful dresses and shirts to capture the best photos. Posing with bottoms sticking out, arched backs, and pursed lips. The same went for the people going past on the train, leaning out of the doors in various positions – a huge smile painted on their faces.
It got me thinking. I wonder if the plastic litter appears anywhere their Instagram images?
I got online and started searching through anything with the hashtags ‘#srilanka’ ‘#travelsrilanka’ and ‘#srilankatourism’.
Three hours and 1,000s of photos later, and I still hadn’t found a photo with a single piece of plastic in it. Just photos depicting the plastic-free paradise that Sri Lanka should be.
Of course, it’s completely understandable why people would keep the unsightly waste out of their travel pics. But what I marvelled at was simply how they managed it. It’s actually difficult NOT to capture the plastic in many of the country’s most visited places.
At that point, I turned inwards, and took a look at my own Instagram pictures. Guess what? Not a single piece of plastic anywhere, despite the fact I was almost drowning in the stuff.
Perhaps, like everyone else, I am misrepresenting the place I’m visiting. Surely it is our responsibility to voice our despair at the growing environmental problem. Sri Lanka, after all, relies heavily upon tourism. Sri Lanka’s Government may need to be shaken into action, like other tourist destinations in Asia have been.
Sri Lanka’s financial problems
There are numerous explanations to the volume of plastic building up all over Sri Lanka. Poverty, education and a lack of means to dispose of the waste all play a part. Smoldering plastic bonfire is a familiar smell in the country.
There are also the usual suspects. Coke bottles, water bottles, crisp packets, straws and plastic bags. We in the West sell container loads of a good proportion of this stuff to countries all over the world without the faintest regard for what becomes of the waste. Add to this the new scourge on the land, the disposable face-mask, and you have a problem.
The Covid pandemic has pushed Sri Lanka to the brink of bankruptcy. Tourist’s have only just begin returning to the Island after almost two years away, pushing many people into abject poverty.
It’s clear that this situation will probably not help with progress towards a cleaner country, but attitudes desperately need to change. It was hard to watch many local people, who I really liked, throw their litter onto the floor or into the water, with zero regard for their environment. It was also strange given how often they spoke of how beautiful Sri Lanka is.
Sri Lanka is not on its own
Sri Lanka of course isn’t the only country with plastic and environmental issues. Parts of India, Africa and South East Asia are also becoming swamped. Others have made huge strides to tackle the issue.
Sri Lanka still has much to offer, and probably needs your help. It is still an incredible holiday destination, with so many beautiful places, the friendliest people, and great cuisine. However, for a country that prides itself on its beauty, and relies so heavily on tourism, it needs to get its act together when it comes to the plastic waste that is spoiling it all.
Yes, you won’t see it on Instagram, but trust me, it’s there.
It definitely isn’t my intention to put people off visiting here. But it’s our responsibility to make some noise about the plastic issues, and not to ignore it. Speak to your hotel manager about it. Tell your guide. Bring it up in conversation. For every plastic free Instagram picture, we’re shirking the responsibility of insisting on change.
For what it’s worth, I have still fallen in love with Sri Lanka, which makes the destruction even more painful to witness.