When I was volunteering at Maya Pedal in Guatemala there was a sign on the wall that said “Que Caro Es Ser Pobre”. It means “How expensive it is to be poor.” As I travel through many of the world’s “poor” countries, I am writing a series of articles about how expensive it is to be poor. I don’t think many people in “rich” countries understand how difficult it is to climb out of poverty. I am all about positivity and I am having the time of my life right now. But I would be doing a disservice to the amazing people I’ve met if I didn’t share their story of what life is like dealing with poverty.
We all produce it. But chances are from wherever you are reading this right now you never see it again once the garbage collectors pick it up from your home.
In many parts of the world, there is no such thing as garbage collection. I remember asking how garbage worked when I was in Pakistan visiting my grandparents when they were alive. I was told that my grandma paid someone to come and collect the garbage, but where it went she had no idea.
I think many cities here in Latin America have garbage collection. I saw it in Copan Ruinas and San Salvador, for example. But in the villages, it doesn’t exist. Look at the image to the left. This ineffective solution is right next to the park honoring the founder of the city of San Miguel, El Salvador. Sad.
Most people end up burning their garbage. This is obviously dangerous, bad for the environment, and bad for personal health. But what would you do if your garbage wasn’t collected?
Tragedy of the Commons
In business school we learned about the concept of The Tragedy of the Commons. It basically states what is already known as human nature – people are motivated individualistically and often pursue personal gain at the expense of mutual benefit.
I see a strong parallel here when it comes to garbage. People here have the attitude that “The world is my garbage can.” I remember the first time on this trip when I saw someone throw an item of garbage on the ground like it was no big deal. I was shocked. For me it goes against so much of what I believe in and so many years of anti-littering campaigns. I had to force myself not to confront that person on the spot.
I remember going to buy some things at a nearby store when I was volunteering at Maya Pedal in Guatemala. We would always bring bags with us to cut down on garbage. I bought my stuff and handed over the bag. Another person in the store looked puzzled and asked what was going on. Perhaps she was just as confused at this gesture as I was at seeing someone openly litter.
The lady working there, used to dealing with us foreigners at Maya Pedal, explained that we always bring our own bag. But she also didn’t understand why. So I explained that we are trying to cut down on garbage production. We talked some more and I remember saying “Even though this isn’t my country, I am living here at the moment and I don’t like living in a dirty place.”
It was a bit harsh, and maybe even harsher since my limited Spanish vocabulary doesn’t lend itself well to speaking subtly. But I made my point by turning around and pointing outside at the curb where there was always garbage of some kind, be it plastic bags, wrappers, cans, bottles, etc.
They understood my point, but still thought I was crazy. The next day there was a board of directors meeting for Maya Pedal. An old lady came late to the meeting. She had to be at least 75 years old, but she looked like she was at least 90. There were small pieces of individually wrapped candy on the table. She reached for a piece of candy and then threw the wrapper on the floor.
This shocked me as well. We actually had a garbage can. All she had to do was put the wrapper on the table and we would have thrown it away after the meeting. Better yet, she could have held on to it and thrown it away herself. Of course, by throwing it on the floor we would sweep it up into the garbage too. But it showed how ingrained the attitude is here. Got garbage? No problem. Let gravity work for you…
Since then I’ve seen countless examples, perhaps the worst being people throwing things out bus windows or a kid riding his bike and throwing a container of unknown liquid into the river in Yoloaiquin. Again, there is no shame in doing these things. It’s normal.
The worst case I found was during Dia del Muerto. I found a used baby diaper between two graves. Maybe it’s a little superstitious, but I have a lot of respect for cemeteries. I just can’t imagine leaving a used diaper in a cemetery like that. It just seems insanely disrespectful.
And I have to admit… Properly disposing of your garbage is really hard here if you are out and about. Generally, there are no public garbage cans. I have been tempted to just throw something on the ground at times too, because the alternative is holding on to it for a potentially really long time until I find a garbage can.
In cities, all this garbage in the street is unsightly. In my opinion, it lowers the overall self-esteem of the city. It’s important to have pride in your community, and I get the feeling that doesn’t exist if people are so willing to pollute. But again, maybe that’s because the idea of keeping the community clean is so deeply ingrained in me. I have seen signs saying not to pollute and trying to link cleanliness to pride in one’s community here, but it seems like it’s not working.
There’s also the disease aspect here. All this garbage in the streets can’t be healthy. Sure, the animals (cats and dogs mostly) can feed on some of it. But a lot of the organic garbage probably just contributes to a more unhealthy environment. And some of the garbage, toxic or otherwise, probably finds its way into the water supply – especially since many people in rural areas rely on wells. And, as you can see to the left, some of the garbage probably finds its way into the food supply.
For those who burn garbage, it is often done near the home. A lifetime of inhaling those fumes can’t be good for your health, or the health of developing children.
How expensive is all the medical cost associated with these very real negative externalities from improperly disposing of garbage? The loss of tourism in these wonderfully naturally beautiful parts of the world?
I wondered whether things would change if there were more public garbage cans. This scene in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador gave me hope. As I walked around with a bag filled with my lunch remnants (two banana peels, the corn husks that held two tamales, and the bag + straw that held my horchata), it was a very welcome site! And look at the street. There is almost no garbage! Compare that with a random shot of this street in San Miguel with no similar garbage can.
Similarly, in Costa Rica it is much, much cleaner. You don’t find hardly any garbage on the street. Part of that is due to the eco-friendly attitude present here, and part of it is because there are public garbage cans in the cities and regular garbage collection.
There’s hope. But that hope rests with the government as they would have to be the one to install public garbage cans and then collect the garbage. Similarly, they’d have to do the education and convince people in outdoor markets why walking 100 yards or meters to the garbage can is worth it instead of doing the usual and throwing the garbage on the ground.
I think this would probably be pretty expensive. But how expensive is the disease from all the garbage strewn about? And the ill health effects for children and adults from burning garbage? Potential accidents in burning garbage? The lack of tourists because the cities appear unclean even though hotels are and the residents’ houses are clean and this part of the world is ridiculously beautiful.
The list goes on and on. Again, there’s no easy answer. But change is needed.