Photo Editor

A boat ferries passengers to Cartagena, Colombia, during the first days of beach openings. (Charlie Cordero)

Andres, a recycling worker, says plastic materials have increased considerably during the pandemic. (Charlie Cordero)

It’s no secret that our planet has been struggling mightily with pollution and its effects for many years. One of the more visible representations in recent years is the proliferation of plastic waste. The Washington Post has explored this in several articles, including here and here. It is a truly disturbing phenomenon.

In the past year, during the pandemic, this piling-up of plastic gained new significance for Colombia-based photographer Charlie Cordero. At the beginning of quarantine measures in his country, Cordero was surfing during hours deemed acceptable for physical activity. He told In Sight that at some point, while he was floating far from shore, he noticed a mask in the water next to him.

Cordero’s immediate reaction was disgust tinged with sadness. And seeing the mask out in the ocean prompted him to ask himself several questions about waste and how we deal with it. He told In Sight that it made him wonder how the mask got there. And who was going to get rid of it? It also made him wonder about personal protective equipment waste in general — can we recycle it? And what are we supposed to do with masks after we are done using them?

Spurred by these questions, Cordero took to his phone to research how common this phenomenon was worldwide. To his surprise, Cordero told In Sight, “Both Japan and the south of France had already warned about this issue.

“After a few days in the middle of the strictest confinement and after ordering food at home, I was very surprised by the way the product is packaged: Everything was wrapped in a transparent plastic bag with a seal that said ‘biosecure product.’

“At that time, I took my phone and looked for some information on that, and indeed the Colombian government had issued a new regulation that consisted in that all products at home had to be covered with a plastic bag to avoid possible infections. There the questions returned: Who will take care of this material? Where does it end? Is plastic the most bio-safe material?”

With this rattling around in his head, Cordero embarked on a project to answer the question: “What is happening with single-use plastics and individual protection elements such as gloves and face masks in the new normal?”

One of the takeaways from this project for Cordero was a heightened awareness of his personal use of plastic. Like most of us, he knew that plastic pollution was a problem. But working on the project made him realize he wasn’t doing enough about it. He told In Sight:

“Now, I usually pay more attention to how the products I consume are packaged, or I wash the plastics and Styrofoam before recycling them. I try to give plastic bags and bottles a second life, and I use reusable face masks. However, there is a feeling that I could still do much more.”

With the problem of plastic pollution only getting more intense, all of us would do well to take these lessons to heart.

You can see more of Cordero’s work on his website.

Santa Marta, Colombia, is considered a pioneer city in the implementation of plastic-free strategies. Residents typically deliver material to recyclers in an organized and systematic way. (Charlie Cordero)

A recycling center in Barranquilla, Colombia. (Charlie Cordero)

As use of disposable masks increased, so did the waste they create. (Charlie Cordero)

Security protocols in Colombia required restaurants to use double plastic bags for home delivery of all products. (Charlie Cordero)

A shoe collected from the shore of Punta Astilleros, Colombia, between Barranquilla and Cartagena, a beach said to have one of the highest densities of plastic-per-square-meter in the country. (Charlie Cordero)

A restaurant delivery — with extra plastic. (Charlie Cordero)

Trash collected at Punta Astilleros in Colombia. (Charlie Cordero)

From a restaurant. (Charlie Cordero)

A worker from the aqueduct and sewer company in Barranquilla, Colombia, cleans storm drains. (Charlie Cordero)

Puerto Colombia, Colombia, the weekend of reopening to the public. (Charlie Cordero)

A garbage trap in a stream on the outskirts of Barranquilla, Colombia. (Charlie Cordero)

Luis Arteta has always lived on these coasts. (Charlie Cordero)

A beach next to the mouth of the Manzanares River in Santa Marta, Colombia. Despite more than eight years of efforts to be considered the first city in the country without plastics, some residents continue to throw waste into the river, which brings it to the shore. (Charlie Cordero)

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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