Monday, March 22

Staying Green: Peru's Informal Recycling

Littering: A slap in the face
One day on the bus I got whacked in the face with a candy wrapper. The woman in front of me had tried to throw it out the window and, apparently, didn't calculate the trajectory very well. 

This littering offender fits the norm in Peru. Trash is often seen flying from both sides of the buses, thrown out by it's passengers. On the street itself, many Peruvians have little shame in tossing a receipt, wrapper or plastic bottle on the ground. 

Some of the worst littering, however, comes from businesses and individual homes that dump their trash pile by Arequipa's main river or in a gully, like this one near our house:

The younger generation in my English classes hate this. They seem to place real importance on the environment, the importance of instilling a culture that encourages recycling and discourages littering. 

Chatarreros and Street Cleaners
With this kind of trash management, recycling must be non-existent, you might think. But actually, Peru recycles a lot--informally. 

The chatarrero--a person who collects chatarra or trash--rides up and down the streets calling "I buy batteries! I buy glass! I buy bottles!" The people who want to get rid of stuff, come out on the street and sell him their junk. We recycled our bottles with this chatarrero pictured below:

And when the trash truck comes by in the morning, people following it (not associated with the company) separate out the plastic bottles to sell to a recycling company. 

After 8 p.m., on the commercial streets downtown, many people walk around with large bags. They sift through the trash thrown out by business owners, collecting plastic bottles that they will later sell for a few soles.

Sergio and I wanted to recycle our plastic bottles, so we've been collecting them to someday bring downtown and give to one of the many people on the street.

While recycling in any form could be seen as positive, there are some very negative aspects of this trash collection. The people, often times children, are exposed to disease, toxins and other things than affect their health as they dig through the trash.

There are rumors that the recycling plastic bottles are refilled with imitation sodas, or even medicines, that are usually sold in poorer areas. These products could be contaminated or even dangerous. I've poked holes in them with the hope that I'm not facilitating the black market. 

Is Peru Greener than the States?
While trash litters the street, out of necessity, people reuse and reduce like few Americans I know. The fact that more than 35% of the population lives in poverty demands that the people reuse things instead of buying new ones. 

The zapatero (shoemaker) for example, still thrives in Peru because you can get your $30 shoes fixed for $1. Many of us, myself included, are known to throw away old shoes because it's more expensive to get them fixed than buy new ones. 

Another example: Coca Cola and other soda companies provide their drinks in glass bottles, which they later collect from vendors, clean and refill for reuse.

From my calculations, the average American produces seven times more trash than the average Peruvian. You wouldn't guess it by the trash on the streets here, but who's greener?

Addressing the Trash Management Problem
Much of the trash management problem in Peru comes down to poor municipal management and a lack of national laws protecting the environment. There are no anti-litter laws or community clean-up projects, although you can see some people do want their neighborhoods clean, as demonstrated by this Miraflores mural that says "No Littering":
While four districts in Lima do have a public recycling program, a public option for recycling doesn't seem viable in Peru, at least to me. The first thing that needs to happen is stricter and more efficient trash management, but local governments don't have the resources to manage trash, much less ensure consistent water and electricity.

But one NGO, Ciudad Saludable de Lima, is pushing local businesses to manage their trash privately. The organization employs 150 people, serves three million people and educates people about their environmental obligations. It has helped make clean so many Lima neighborhoods that the NGO received international recognition for its work. 

1 comment:

  1. I often find myself having to empty a trashcan every other day full of unsolicited junk mail. It was rare to see mail in Arequipa. When you did get mail it wasn't trash.