Sierra Brashear has a passion for trash.
She’s vitally interested in the amount and content of the crap we as a species manage to generate. (In case you're wondering, the EPA reports that the USA alone produces enough garbage annually to bury the state of Texas twice). She's been fighting for the environment since grade school.
Growing up in Conifer, Colorado, she was so appalled by plans to develop Elk Meadow that she took it upon herself to write a letter to the editor of the local paper expressing her concern. 'The developer,' she says, 'wrote back saying ‘If you’re so worried about it, buy it yourself.’ She was eight years old at the time.
Later, working on a degree in International Environmental Policy and Development at Colorado University, she volunteered at the student run CU Environmental Center, sorting and recycling campus waste. 'I was fascinated by the content and amount of the waste we generated on campus,' she says. 'We’d fill up a thirty-foot roll off twice a week.'
As part of her course work, Brashear went to Zanzibar to do a study on costal ecology in 2006. Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania, has in recent years become a destination for sun-seeking Europeans. It’s an island of stunning natural beauty, ringed with white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, and trash as far as the eye can see. 'Plastic bags, bottles, cans, batteries, chip bags,' she says. 'The landscape was covered with it.'
In her conversations with local teachers, government officials, hotel owners and ordinary citizens, Brashear came to a devastating realization. In pitching their trash out on the beach, the people of Zanzibar were not engaged in some form of aberrant behavior, nor were they being callous or indifferent to the environment. They were practicing an ancient form of recycling that up until now had worked just fine for them. In traditional Zanzibari culture, a shopping bag, for example, might be woven of grass, an organic material that could be discarded with the certain expectation that the earth would soon reclaim it. Not so with modern materials like plastic bags, which take forever to decompose.
Having brought capitalism to the island, and with it modern materials like plastics, we have, Brashear insists, 'a responsibility to help the people of Zanzibar figure out how to dispose of it.'
Back in Boulder, she spent a year thinking about the problem. Then one day her mother offered a simple suggestion, 'The solution,' she said, 'lies in education.' Mother, Brashear realized, was onto something.
She applied for and received a grant from the CU Undergraduate Research Opportunity Fund to design a curriculum to educate Zanzibaris on how to deal with their trash. While it emphasized reduction of consumption, Brashear’s program also contained some novel suggestions for recycling. Plastic bags, for example, could be cut into strips and crocheted into reusable purses and market bags.
An Italian environmental group active in Zanzibar, the Association of Rural Cooperation in Africa and Latin America (ACRA), was so impressed with her ideas, that they have funded a program to teach them to local school kids. They’re also pushing to have her suggestions included in the national school curriculum.
'To be honest,' she says, 'I still feel disheartened by the amount of trash we generate. I look at people’s grocery carts and see how much packaging it takes to produce just one meal…all that plastic and cardboard. There’s definitely a link to food production. So much of the trash in Zanzibar was food related… juice containers instead of juice from locally grown fruits, for example.'
Brashear is now working with an organization called Grow House in North Denver’s Swansea neighborhood, setting up greenhouses and encouraging area residents to grow their own organic produce. 'I believe,' she says, 'that the solution to the world’s trash problem lies in the localization of food production, and in the individual empowerment of people to control their own food sources.'