What would you rather see on the Camino?
The problem of litter, human faeces and graffiti on the Camino paths has been discussed ad infinitum by pilgrims from around the world on the Camino Forums. It is a growing problem that needs to be addressed by the organisations in Spain that are responsible for the maintenance of the Camino routes.
When confronted with this problem on the Camino Forum one pilgrim's response was: “Shit happens, so perhaps every pilgrim who is given a credencial should, at the same time, be given a packet of biodegradable poop bag kits like "Gotta-go" waste bags or "Go Anywhere" toilet kit so that they can pack and carry their waste until they reach a proper place to flush it away or dispose of it. If people walking their dogs can use doggie poop-bags why can't we?”
say that the litter problem is a pilgrim problem and that it is up to all pilgrims
to find a solution. They have a point - it is after all a 'pilgrim' trail that is walked or cycled by pilgrims from all over the world.
problem of sanitation however, is seen to be a problem for the Juntas who
should provide some type of sanitation facilities for the hundreds of thousands
of pilgrims walking the trails every year.
pilgrims from outside of Spain have expressed the opinion that with almost 70%
of pilgrims being Spanish - and because they are of the opinion that it is
mainly Spanish youth groups who litter - the problem of litter and sanitation
is a Spanish one.
When asked for solutions, these have ranged from ‘shoot the buggers’ to ‘name and shame them’. Some feel that Confraternities should run ‘educational programs’ and others say that hospitaleros should be trained to lecture pilgrims in the albergues on the evils of littering and soiling the Camino paths.
FAQ: Where do the pilgrims ‘go’ once they leave the albergue? Very few Spanish villages and towns have public toilets and pilgrims have to find facilities in cafe-bars or restaurants along the way. Once out of the village there is nowhere to go so they find places in clearings, behind a tree, bush or bales of hay, sometimes even behind a farmer’s barn or house.
Gordon Bell (a South African living in Vilacha) says: “I have a sign at my front door, in my drive way and at the door to the house, explaining that my home is not a public toilet and is not available, but daily we have at least a dozen people begging for a loo and even getting abusive when refused.”
How many pilgrims?
A few years ago, Don Juan Jose estimated that the number of pilgrims on the Camino, and the number of pilgrims who receive the Compostela, was about 5 to 1. Over 100 000 pilgrims have received a Compostela so far this year. According to the above estimate, there will be more than 500 000 pilgrims on the Camino this year. Can the Camino trails sustain the litter and, more important, excrement of 500 000 people each year?
* El Instituto de Estudios Turísticos de Galicia y la sociedad de gestión del Plan Xacobeo are hoping to measure the magnitude of the volume of pilgrims and the economic impact of pilgrims.
A growing problem
In 2002 when I walked the Camino I don’t remember being aware of litter on the paths. I kept a diary and wrote about the Camino every day but I didn’t even mention litter.
In the 2004 Holy Year there were many places on the Camino, mainly on the last 100km, where pilgrims had used clearings on the sides of the path as toilets. Most of these were littered with used toilet paper and tissues.
In 2007 my friends and I noticed more litter on the paths than before but it was in 2009 that we realised how the problem of litter and a lack of toilets had affected the Camino Frances.
In May 2007 a CSJ of SA member Margi Biggs from Cape Town walked from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago. “I was really disturbed by the amount of litter left by other pilgrims over the years, so I thought a Camino Spring Clean was in order.”
In 2008 Margi launched a ‘Spring Clean the Camino’ campaign and had 10 000 garbage bags (132kgs) printed with the CSJ of SA Logo and a message in several languages asking pilgrims to pick up litter as they walked the Camino. Each South African pilgrim was sent a bag with their credencial and was asked to take the bag on the Camino and help clear up litter along the way.
In 2008 the Canadian Company of Pilgrims started their litter campaign named ‘Take a Day to Make a Difference’. They decided to include a litter bag with all credencials they issued in 2008 and a request to Take a Day to Make a Difference and collect litter along the way.
October 2008 reports of excessive littering on the Camino continued.
“Hey all, I’m in Leon, I have been walking now for 23 days and I can’t believe how much litter I see the pilgrims leave!!! Please, walk lightly on this earth, and especially on the Camino. if love my sisters, but I’ve got to say, quit leaving your toilet paper on the ground, especially in all the shady places.....”In 2009 Margi Biggs and Gordon Bell, a South African living in Vilacha, drove across the Camino Frances leaving piles of bags at albergues for the pilgrims to use.
The initiative was lauded on the Camino Forums but with a comment that Spain too should take the initiative:
“Excellent! Kudos to the South Africans and Canadians. With half the pilgrims being from Spain, it would be nice to see Spain lead an on-going anti-litter campaign. I know they do a lot already, but one-time programs from South Africa cannot possibly be as successful as Spanish initiatives.”
Many of the 30+ organisations that belong to the Spanish Federation organise clean-up days of the Camino in their Regions. But, it is short-lived and the paths are soon covered in litter again.
January 2009: “I was also disheartened to see so much litter on the Camino - I mostly saw plastic water bottles and other trash from trailside lunches...often times, there would be a trash can within sight of the litter.”
“In her book The Way of Stars and Stones Wilna Wilkinson arrives at the Cruz de Ferro in the heart of a February hurricane. She describes her disgust as she reaches the top of the great mound of stones to find cigarette packets, used syringes, broken bottles, chewing gum wrappers, bras, condoms, a cast from a broken arm and other 'sacrifices' left at the foot of the cross.”
In 2009, the American Pilgrims on the Camino Chairman, Jim Eychamer, reported on his visit to the Santiago Pilgrim’s Office where he raised the issue of littering. Whilst it was agreed that it was a huge problem, Ignacio Santos Cidrás, then director for Xacobeo 2010, was horrified that the US was considering asking their members to take a plastic bag to Spain to help clean up the Camino. He said that Spain already had a problem with plastic bags in the country and the Americans should not encourage their members to bring anymore into the country. Unfortunately, he didn’t elaborate on what the solution was and the majority of pilgrims continued to feel that if we are all able to fill just one bag it will be better than doing nothing. (La Concha - Nov 2009)
December 2010 “An unholy Year on the Camino”.
Greg Dedman, pilgrim friend and collaborator on YOUR CAMINO, walked the Camino in November. He posted this on the Camino Forum:
“I was disgusted by mountains of litter, desecrated ancient ruins and religious artefacts, pointless graffiti and pile upon pile of human excrement complete with used toilet paper. From the beginning of the Camino Frances all the way to Santiago, the aforementioned became an unfortunate constant and the more I saw this complete disregard for others, the more upset and angry I became.”
“Throughout the 800km of the Camino Frances litter was a constant eyesore. There’s a whole other argument here for some people regarding whose responsibility it is to clear litter. Numbers of pilgrims in the peak months are sky high and waste bins are few and far between, what bins there are, are sometimes woefully overflowing. However, on a very basic level, walking anywhere in the countryside should mean that you 'take out what you take in' or 'take only photos, leave only footsteps'. Whatever happened to that mantra? “
“For information a glass drinks bottle
will take around 2 million years to decompose.
A metal drinks can will take anywhere between 1-1000 years to decompose. A plastic bottle will NEVER decompose. Even a banana peel will take a month.”
“The truly stunning woodland out of Portomarin was where I chose to start counting. I walked several kilometers counting how many drinks containers I could see just from the path (sad man I hear you say). Not including what went unseen, and the various other types of litter, in just 1km (between km posts 88 and 89) I happened upon 226 plastic water bottles and drinks cans. It may not sound a lot, but add that up over 800km and it’s a hefty sum! (181,000). This was a random section I chose to count but the figures spoke for themselves. What made it worse was that in these places there WERE half-full litter bins dotted along the path!”
Greg described the human waste he saw on the paths.
“I saved the worst for last. I am at a loss to explain simply WHY I and every other pilgrim who walked the Camino Frances after this summer had to be witness to such a disgusting sight time after time. One pilgrim said she read a forum post somewhere (not necessarily here) that advised going to the toilet in the outdoors and not worrying about it as the waste decomposes. On day two of my Camino, between Roncesvalles and Larasoana I could not find a nice spot off the track for lunch. At every single break in the brush I nipped through to find piles of used toilet roll and human excrement. I didn’t dare sit anywhere nearby for the urine soaking the grass. This was a constant problem the whole way along the Camino; watch out behind bales of hay in particular. Before Los Arcos there is a little stream, a small bridge and a large pile of bales, lovely spot out of the wind for a rest.... but for the excrement.
On the Meseta things took a turn for the worse. Yes, villages are more spread out here but still, if you do feel the call of nature there are proper ways of disposing of the waste not only to make the way prettier, but also to prevent disease to your fellow pilgrims and other living creatures. As for the toilet roll, come on guys!!! It can take 2-3 years for toilet paper to decompose (it is designed to decompose quicker in septic tanks, hence putting them down our toilets.) The time it takes human faeces to decompose can vary drastically! What is for sure is that it doesn't magically disappear. With increased numbers of course comes more waste and the clear-up has to happen....180,000 bottles along the route can't remain there for the next 1,000 years right?, someone has to physically pick them up or the entire route will remain a dump for 400 generations.”
The reactions to this post were immediate and varied.
“I'm an Aussie, and we have public education campaigns against littering e.g. Keep Australia Beautiful. I think it has worked well over the years, though there are still the louts & losers who don't see a problem with rubbishing their country. My questions are - do many other countries have similar campaigns? Is it just the Camino, or is the rest of Spain/Europe getting littered as well? Is it laziness re carrying litter, or culture/ignorance that littering is OK?”
“I was astounded...absolutely astounded at the number of plastic bottles and pop cans and food wrappers that people left behind...just tossed beside the path. It was beyond me why people couldn't carry their leftovers to the next town, often just a few kms away or even in sight and they still tossed it beside the path.”
Who do the pilgrims blame?
Nobody ever admits to littering or soiling the countryside - it is always someone else!
“Not to attack Spain, but France is much cleaner along the roads and paths than Spain.”
“I'd suggest that Southern Europeans are
more likely to foul the environment than Western Europeans, based only on
“More than half the pilgrims are Spanish. I would not be surprised if they accounted for 75% of the litter. I followed a Spanish school group from a vending machine after Sarria. Every wrapping ended up on the ground.
Over 69% of the 272,313 pilgrims last year were Spanish. We guests should not have to feel guilty about more than 30% of the litter, and probably much less. We might find it difficult to impose an "outside" solution on the litter problem. I cannot imagine that the Spanish are unaware of it. My personal solution will continue to be picking up after myself and a few others, and ignoring the rest.
“Stats are misleading! Especially when the great majority of Spaniards only walk the last 100km. Greg's photos were taken all along the Camino not just the last 100km so we can't sit back and blame it all the crap on the locals!”
“I would guess that the Spanish youth groups probably are one of the prime culprits (but that is also because they are in the majority). Here, it's up to the leaders to give them a pep talk before they leave and, why not, have them sign a pledge not to litter.”
“It's the cyclists. They buy the 2 litre bottles and toss them aside when empty. Did you ever see a walker buy the big bottles for the trail? The habit of immediate disposal by cyclists carries to every other form of litter. How many pockets have you seen in cycling shorts? My walking shorts have about thirty pockets, more or less, with plenty of room for trash, including crushed water bottles. Bicyclist shorts? No pockets are larger than a key, and certainly they have no room for an empty water bottle.”
“Ladies (yes, especially ladies)... please do NOT leave soiled toilet paper lying along the WAY.”
“Trash containers are infrequent. Toilets are even rarer. Raging against people going to the bathroom is a fruitless battle.”
“More fundamental is the toilet issue. People have to go somewhere. Nature will call, sometimes when least wanted. Which of us has not been visited by a desperate need along the way sometime, somewhere? The numbers of people and the degradability or not, of what they use, will determine how bad it is. One of the bottom lines is that there are no toilets along the way except maybe in the villages.”
“I have walked in areas, especially where there have been "picnic" areas, where the rubbish/garbage containers were overflowing and waste was everywhere. I really wonder how often they are cleaned up. Every day, week, month - or at the end of the season?
"People won’t stop taking a dump when on the Camino, so the only answer is to leave the path and go a good distance (100 metres or more) and then adopt Rodin's "Thinker" position. Paper can be buried by kicking some earth over it. The offending item is biodegradable compost, and some time later may help to push up some daisies.”
"It´s not a matter of whose it is, whodunnit, or why; it is there, it is offensive, and it needs to be removed. It is that simple; just talking and writing and photographing and complaining about it is not dealing with the problem.”
“If I had a rocket launcher.... But realistically, if you have a plastic shopping bag at the start of the day, and you just pick up trash along the path as you see it, just enough to fill one bag, and you put that bag in a trash bin, well. You´re DOING something about the problem. Enough people do this simple thing (which also gives you a good morning warm-up stretch), and the problem would be on its way to solution.”
“Unless concerted action is undertaken by municipalities, associations and other interest groups, to organize and finance prevention and maintenance, the Camino risks to be an increasing stream of litter.”
“I only found out about the Camino over the last year, and haven't decided if I am ever going to attempt to walk it. This thread alone makes me think "No thanks." Littering? On a pilgrim trail? Tagging all over markers? Really? and human excrement left out in the open...It's too depressing to even contemplate. What do people undertake this huge physical effort for, only to despoil the environment?”
“The chain supermarkets supply plastic gloves for customers to use when selecting fruits and vegetables. If one isn't picking up too much trash, these can protect one's hands from God-only-knows what germs may lurk on discarded tissues.”
Suggestions from Pilgrims
“Here in New Zealand the tracks like the Milford Track etc have eco toilets at strategic intervals. They are nice looking simple structures which run on solar principles and lead to odourless drying up of poos and pees. The track looks pretty pristine.”
“When 100,000 people get a permit to gather in the U.S., sanitary provisions are made by the government or the group. Spain knows it is getting a mob of pilgrims each year, yet it does nothing to provide toilet facilities for them. The burden is on the bars and the restaurants, and it is an unfair burden. 175,000 pilgrims will spend 30 Euro daily for 33 days. That is about $175m Euro with a lot of VAT and local levies included. Would it kill them to put up and service portable toilets with some of the proceeds?”
“Maybe every pilgrim should be given a small Camino litter bag before they start walking?”
“I think many peregrinos don't know that the big containers you see in the villages/cities are waste containers FREE TO USE. You see at least one in small villages. That's the system in Spain. Everyone needs to throw their garbage in containers. Easy!!!! The green ones are general purpose. Just open the cover and throw.”
“I think that it is pretty certain that most of the worst offenders will be staying in albergues for the most part. Wouldn't it be good if it were made a requirement of checking in at every albergue to sign a "pledge" or "acknowledgment" concerning litter, graffiti, and proper toilet/toilet paper procedures? It would not have to be long...just a pledge not to do it and to protect the Camino.”
“I don't know what the answer is but I would like to see the Spanish involved in keeping the routes clean by creating an anti-litter campaign. It is their country and they must create these rules and enforce them somehow. Now the question is how to motivate them.”
“Setting a personal example always helps. So we must all carry our own rubbish with us, bury our excrement and no defacement (drawings, piles of stones etc) and then we may not even need to start that nasty little English speaking habit of blaming foreigners.”
“Look to Singapore, part of the British empire from 1819 to 1963, as your role model. Caning for littering. Banishment for criticizing the government. It is the cleanest city in the world.”
Suggestion from a Master's Student
Kunaeva Marina, who published her Master’s thesis on“Sustainable Tourism Management along the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage Routes” in March 2012, suggested that, as a major solution, an environmental impact assessment should take place in accordance with law and this action should be set as a priority when it comes to distribution of financial resource. These measures could be done in cooperation with environmental organizations and volunteers such as:
Consejo Jacobeo – the policy should be equal for the whole route despite of the area where it is located.
Xunta de Galicia – consists of different units and has a direct connection to the government of Spain, consequently has an access to EU sustainability polices.
S.A. de Xestión do Plan Xacobeo– promotes the Camino de Santiago nationally and internationally. It aims at economic and socio-cultural benefits of the Way.
ADEGA – fights, promotes, stimulates for ecological and heritage protection in Galicia region. It has a full awareness of environmental problems.
CETUR – make studies related to economical development on the Camino de Santiago routes in cooperation with S.A. de Xestión do Plan Xacobeo and Xunta de Galicia, thus it has a good knowledge of up to date issues.
Spanish Federation of Associations of Friends of the Camino de Santiago – it represents private initiatives, organises and manages volunteer work that takes place along the Camino.
The organisations in Spain that are charged with the maintenance and preservation of the Camino paths should have a national workshop to discuss this issue. All service providers and role players should take part. Once a solution has been proposed, they must engage the support of all the St James organisations and Confraternities by provide articles and documents on their websites which can be used at the pilgrim workshops around the world to encourage their members to be ‘Eco-Pilgrims”.
we agree that the problem of litter on the Camino paths is a pilgrim problem, all
pilgrims should share in the solution - with the help and support of the Spanish organisations.
should up-date and improve their brochure ‘Become an Eco Pilgrim’ and every
pilgrim who receives a credencial should be given a copy of the brochure and
the ADEGA report-back form so that they can report back on environmental
damages to the Camino as well as comments and suggestions for
improvements. These could be handed in
at the Pilgrim’s Office or posted once they return home.
2) Nominate one day a week as a ‘Camino-Clean-Up Day’. On that day, every pilgrim should fill a small plastic bag with rubbish and deposit it in the very efficient Spanish garbage disposal bins. Plastic bags can be stored in the albergues and hospitaleros trained to hand them out on ‘Camino-Clean-Up Day’. Posters in the albergues and Tourist Offices will remind pilgrims that “Martes es día de limpieza” in 8 different languages.
Each Region of the Camino should be responsible for identifying the worst affected areas of the Camino in their area. These are mainly on long, isolated paths far from towns and villages.
(South African rural latrine)
In many countries, ‘Eco - toilets’ have been used in inaccessible areas for generations. The oldest is the ‘long-drop’ (or pit-toilet) which, when properly constructed, can be used for over 20 years. Pit-toilets, long-drops and ‘moldering privies’ are used on nature trails such as the Appalachian Trail in the US, Eco-Trails in New Zealand, in the great Wilderness Game Parks of Southern Africa and the Australian outback.
This article was written on 2 August: "When plumbing is but a pipe dream, it's time to dig a pit and build yourself an outhouse"
The modern long-drop has ventilation and windows.