Monday, November 21, 2011
Where will all the Garbage Go?
A tale of Spontaneous development work
In the Peace Corps there are some projects you plan out meticulously. You pore over calendars and schedules for months and brainstorm a 5 step plan for development or empowerment or education. Other times, you go to someone’s house to sit down for five minutes to drink terere and the next thing you know you are trying to explain in Guarani why the ozone layer is important to a bunch of sixth and seventh graders. But I'm getting ahead of myself. This post is about waste. Garbage. And how we 'dispose' or, to use a term that almost hides the negative part about garbage, 'manage' it. Some fun facts:
-The mounds of garbage south of Chicago near the Altgeld Gardens housing projects were so steep a few years ago that an avalanche of trash was feared. After considering various solutions, a flock of garbage eating GOATS were brought in to consume some of the garbage and make the structure of the mound more secure and prevent a disaster.
-Anyone who has driven out of St. Louis into Illinois has seen the massive mounds of garbage that are located right next to the poor neighborhood of East St. Louis. It’s no secret that landfills are generally located next to poor areas who lack economic and political power. Just imagine how fast a proposal to build a landfill next to oh, I don’t know, Hinsdale, IL would get shut down. It would be a quick case of Nimby, aka Not in my backyard.
The garbage problem of our throwaway culture is obviously more readily observable to someone who lives next to a landfill. In the suburbs, we have trash pickup, recycle, and the problem is easy to push out of our immediate priorities. Out of sight, out of mind. I remember how in one of my undergrad courses at Knox it was easy for our discussion group to gang up on the ‘evil and misleading corporations’ that profit from waste management in the U.S. How dare they put landfills next to poor people, man! Looking back on that discussion, my 25 year old self wants to go back in time and give my 22 year old self a reality slap in the face: If the waste management companies are so evil, then what is your solution, man?
Honestly, where WILL all our garbage will go? As more areas in the world develop a consumer mentality, the problem only becomes worse. Living in rural Paraguay has shown me what happens when the culture of consumerism outpaces the culture of waste management. San Blas got electricity here in just 1998. Cell phones arrived in the mid 2000’s (we skipped over land lines). The town now watches as much TV as anywhere, and as a result people here are exposed to the same adds for Hellman’s mayonnaise and Coca Cola along with other consumer products. (With genius add campaigns specifically tailored to them). And I can guarantee that people here produce less per-year waste than the average American since so much food is consumed fresh. But a cursory glance or walk down the main road makes it evident that managing waste is not a top priority, as one will find it littered with all sorts of plastic, paper and glass garbage.
One of two things is usually done with an empty plastic yogurt container, plastic wrapper for a sucker or other throwaway item here: it is either a) tossed on the ground or b) burned in a garbage fire. Sometimes garbage is tossed into a garbage bucket, but normally that is just to be burned later anyway. The municipality has listed in its job description that it should provide garbage pickup for all of the companies under its jurisdiction, but so far the infrastructure hasn’t reached San Blas. So what SHOULD BE done with garbage here, especially toxic plastic waste that one shouldn’t be burning? The best solution is to build a garbage pit in your backyard and just burn whatever paper or cardboard waste you have.
I say ‘should be’ because in my experience most people burn all garbage, toxic and non-toxic, in a weekly garbage fire behind their house. I haven’t seen a lot of garbage pits in my town. The other day, I am over at my friends’ house and heading to the latrine after a round of terere when I see one of the daughters of the family sweeping garbage into a big pile.
“Are you going to burn that?” I ask her.
“Yep,” She replies.
I notice that there is a lot of plastic in her pile, so I say “You know it’s toxic to burn plastic?”
“Yea, I know,” she goes.
“Well why don’t you dig a garbage pit?”
“Why don’t you dig a garbage pit?” she said in a sarcastic, joking way.
I’m pretty sure she was just joking, but I decided to call her bluff. I agree that digging a trash pit is a fine idea, so she hands me a shovel and I start digging in her backyard. An hour later we have a pit that is about 5 feet deep and 5 feet wide. We then get her little brothers and sisters to gather the plastic laying around her house and toss it into the pit. Peace Corps grassroots development work for the day: accomplished.
Sometimes, I don’t think the words “Burning plastic is toxic” have much weight to whoever is listening to me. It’s hard to explain that the smoke will travel a short distance, probably settle into the ground and seep into the water supply and result in greater incidences of cancer, deformed offspring and reproductive failure. I get a look sometimes when I say that like I am crazy. Even though, tragically, an extremely healthy 19 year old one 2 miles from my town has just contracted cancer. I mean, its good that burning a plastic bag and inhaling the smoke doesn’t make your face peel off or anything but, at the same time its effects are potentially fatal. Yet my friend knew toxic was plastic on some level, but that wasn't enough motivation for her to dig a pit to dispose properly of toxic plastic instead of burning it.
Creating the right incentives for behavior change is tricky, and more-so in a foreign land and language. Motivation for behavior change depends on the effort needed to make that change, and the immediate benefit or threat of the problem being presented. This is where education comes in. An educated population is more likely to take more preventative measures to problems as opposed to reactive measures. And digging a single garbage pit and explaining to one family why it is toxic to burn garbage could be the start of a green revolution in Paraguay.
At least, this is what we volunteers tell ourselves. But hey, you never know.
A big thank you to everyone who donated to San Blas’ school library. Most Peace Corps Partnership projects that are submitted to the internet take months to get funding, and within less than 3 days we made it to the $360 mark. I guess I should have asked for more money, but live and learn. The students of San Blas will be extremely happy to have some new and very awesome books for next year.