In ancient times, pilgrims walked the Camino de Santiago to purify their souls, the long and winding road ending where the remains of the apostle St James are said to be buried in city of Santiago de Compostela. 

But now their modern counterparts are being asked to take on an altogether more practical form of cleansing: picking up litter from the side of the route. 

Discarded cigarette ends, food wrappers and used Covid-19 protective masks along the trail form part of a modern day problem which conservationists have labelled ‘littered nature’.

SEO/Birdlife and Ecoembes, two Spanish NGOs which are involved in conservation, are encouraging pilgrims along two parts of the route to join them in removing the discarded rubbish of careless wanderers. 

Walkers are given bags and asked to join volunteers along the Camino Ingles, from A Coruña to the route’s end in Santiago de Compostela, in northern Spain, and the Camino de la Plata, from Seville in southern Spain or Portugal to the end of the pilgrimage.

The Way Backwards (Way of Recycling / LIBERA Project) 2021 Héroes LIBERA raising awareness against littering during the Camino de Santiago

Volunteers pick up rubbish along the route

NGO workers are also studying the level of pollution along the route so as to encourage companies which make facial coverings or food packaging to use reusable materials.

In 2019, more than 347,000 people made the pilgrimage, following the yellow shell signs, which are the symbol of St James.

“Our Spanish word basuraleza – littered nature – is one we made up to describe the way nature is increasingly becoming contaminated by rubbish,” Gustavo Ferreiro, of SEO/Birdlife, told The Telegraph.

He said the worst problem along the route is used cigarette ends, followed by food packages and discarded facial protection masks.

“This project is designed to make people more conscious of this problem. We have found that at this time of the year that there are lots of pilgrims and many are very keen to take part,” said Mr Ferreiro

Research has shown that young people are less concerned about leaving litter in the countryside, according to ProyectoLIBERA, which organises schemes across Spain to encourage people not to leave litter in the country.

“I think we have an international problem because we are producing too much of everything and we don’t have a culture of recycling or reusing things,” said Manuel Muñiz, coordinator of ProyectoLIBERA.

He said research had shown that each discarded cigarette end took 13 years to disintegrate.

They release micro plastics into the soil, releasing up to 400 contaminants into the soil, including heavy metals like cadmium or arsenic.

Every year 6.5 billion cigarettes are produced of which 4.5 billion are thrown away, Mr Muñoz said.

Each discarded Covid-19 mask can release 173,000 microfibres, releasing plastics which are not biodegradable, he said, which can harm animals which ingest these products.

A study by Dutch researchers published in March in the medical journal Animal Biology found evidence of fish entrapped in a medical glove in Holland and birds using medical face masks as nesting materials, which were also found in Dutch canals.

“We signal Covid-19 litter as a new threat to animal life as the materials designed to keep us safe are actually harming animals around us,” the study said.